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Birding with Yeats

by Lynn Thomson

The debut memoir by Toronto bookseller Lynn Thomson is a gentle story about a parent connecting with a child, similar in spirit to David Gilmour’s The Film Club. There are crucial differences, however: Gilmour imposed his “film club” on his teenage son as a condition for allowing him to drop out of school, and built his memoir’s narrative around his own knowledge and passion. Thomson’s experiences birding with her son, Yeats, arose organically out of the latter’s keen interest in the avian world, which, over time, has shaped their relationship.

The development of the mother-son bond is handled deftly and with economy, incorporating meditative reflections on aging, Yeats’s choices regarding university, and Thomson’s own experiences with chronic injury and periods of turmoil in her marriage. It’s not a tidy book, but its anecdotal quality complements the subject matter: reading Birding with Yeats is akin, one assumes, to listening to Thomson tell these stories. They’re well honed, and a consistent voice arises early, which helps guide and shape
the narrative.

If there is a weakness to the book, it is the birding itself. Thomson writes ably of the expeditions, from the Galapagos Islands to Vancouver Island to the family cottage to points within and around Toronto, but she never fully captures the passion of ornithology. This is perhaps to be expected: while Thomson is a seasoned birder, it was Yeats’s enthusiasm that drove their experiences. As a result, there is a small, ineffable absence at the core of the book, a slight sense that something is missing.

That isn’t a fatal flaw, however: Birding with Yeats works on such a number of levels that only the most hardcore birders will even notice, and few are likely to be bothered. They’ll be caught up instead by a delicately handled double coming-of-age story, a realistic and well-written account of the relationship between mother and child, and a reminder of the wonders of the natural world.