From a brief description of The Absence of Sparrows – by Saskatchewan writer and wildlife photographer Kurt Kirchmeier – readers might assume that they’ve read this story before: a small-town setting, a summer vacation, an 11-year-old protagonist who is a bit of a loner, and some inexplicable occurrences. It’s a comfortable combination of tropes, appealing to Ray Bradbury readers and Stranger Things fans alike. But what Kirchmeier does with these ingredients is refreshing, enthralling, and often shocking.
In the set-up, sudden storms have begun to appear around the world, leaving random people transformed into glass. Ben Cameron is an ardent birdwatcher, and from the earliest moments of the crisis, he notices a link between the storms and unusual avian activity: “George Crandall stood frozen in place, an obsidian statue dressed in an old wool suit with patches on the elbows. A crow flew down to land on the statue’s head. It cawed twice and then silently flew off south.” While Ben clings to the idea that the birds – especially the suddenly absent sparrows – will have something to do with humanity’s salvation, others take different approaches. Ben’s brother follows a mysterious voice on the radio, which spins radical theories and proposes extreme measures. And their mother suffers a breakdown when the crisis hits close to home.
The Absence of Sparrows is a powerful piece of storytelling focused solidly on the experiences of one young boy struggling with the stuff of small-town life (bullying is a recurring element) while also attempting to reckon with a global cataclysm. The novel is aimed at a middle-grade audience, but the quality of the prose, its lean force, and surprising depths (along with the twists in the third act) make it a satisfying crossover read. It will resonate with anyone who understands that heroism is not a matter of saving the world but of maintaining yourself, and acting to protect those in your community – despite the forces arrayed against you.