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for people who care about the West

A world of plague and hope: A review of The Bird Saviors

 

The Bird Saviors
William J. Cobb
320 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
Unbridled Books, 2012.

In William J. Cobb's lyrical novel The Bird Saviors, a mysterious virus strikes the residents of Pueblo, Colo. Some blame wild birds for spreading the disease, which leaves victims incapacitated for weeks or eventually kills them. Employees of the Department of Nuisance Animal Control, including strapping George Armstrong Crowfoot, patrol the land and shoot birds. Ward Costello, who lost his wife and baby to the flu, is an ornithologist studying the decline of bird populations around Pueblo. He hires Ruby Cole, a 17-year-old bird expert and mother of a toddler, to help.

Meanwhile, Ruby's fundamentalist preacher father is pressuring her to become the third wife of Hiram Page, pawnshop owner and nefarious leader of a local branch of renegade Mormons calling themselves Saints.

A ne'er-do-well Saints affiliate named Jack Brown tangles with Crowfoot and Page, to his regret; undocumented immigrants scrape out an existence in places where "what little is left of town looks like Mars conquered by Cortés"; and Officer Israel James rides his police horse through the chaos, trying to maintain order as the world around him loses it.

Power outages are frequent, dust tinges snowfalls, and "now more often than not the skies are clear and hateful, not a bird shadow or silhouette to be seen. Taken for granted are fires in the foothills and dust storms off the plains."

The Bird Saviors may be an apocalyptic novel, but it contains plenty of love, hope and humor -- Cobb describes one character as "the kind of woman who could be the mother of beautiful children or the teller of a First National Bank." Cobb writes of the hardscrabble city of Pueblo with affection. Nature may be compromised, but it's still capable of beauty: "A herd of antelope grazes in the stretched-out morning shadows of the turbine towers."

As Cobb's cast of characters clash, connive and yearn, those who seem incapable of redemption surprise us when they achieve it. As human beings have for centuries, the people in The Bird Saviors go on falling in love, working and raising children, trying to live full lives despite the hint of doom in the air.