Given the sudden and vehement uptick in climate-change disasters across the globe, we likely can expect novels with a focus on environmental issues to pop up with ever-increasing frequency.
Two recent entries into the eco-fiction oeuvre, Michael Christie’s Canada Reads finalist Greenwood and Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstory, have trees at the centre of their successful narratives. In The Economy of Sparrows, Prairie naturalist and multiple-award-winning author Trevor Herriot’s first foray into fiction, the trees are important, but it’s the winged creatures living among their leafy reaches that are the real stars of the show.
For his debut novel, Herriot abides by the adage to “write what you know.” The Regina-based author’s previous works, which include River in a Dry Land and Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, showcased Herriot’s extensive knowledge of Great Plains flora and fauna and also his warm, thoughtful prose.
Herriot expands on both of these strengths in The Economy of Sparrows, with protagonist Nell Rowan a rather obvious stand-in to allow the author to creatively express his thoughts and opinions on touchy subjects, such as the rights of farmers versus the need to maintain ecologically sensitive lands and the eternal urban-rural divide.
After decades living in Ottawa, Nell has returned to the family farmstead in rural Saskatchewan. Despite a deep-rooted love for the natural world and a degree in biology, Nell spent most of her adult life working as a janitor, convinced she was undeserving of success and unable to reconcile how to maintain ecological integrity when her best job prospects were with oil companies. When the janitorial firm she works for lands a contract with the National Museum of Nature, Nell is able to surreptitiously pursue her passion for years without the weight of a moral dilemma hanging over her head. She speeds through her work, and spends the wee hours exploring the museum’s bounty of delights and developing a strange fascination (you could even call it obsession) with William Spreadborough, an early 20th-century naturalist and specimen collector with a particular interest in birds.
Nell’s interest in Spreadborough is rooted in his connection to the land of her youth and her family. Herriot uses Nell’s research and explorations of Spreadborough and his contemporaries to illustrate the central quandary of how to respect the needs of nature while also accommodating the human need to understand it, use it, and benefit from it.
In her retirement, Nell has taken on tracking birds for the Breeding Bird Atlas project. While her running commentary on every feathered being she comes across helps illustrate the variety of wildlife in Nell’s environment, and provides context around past versus present numbers and tracking practices, the litany of bird names and facts becomes a bit cumbersome within the slim volume.
Supporting characters act as sounding boards and provide complementary or contrary viewpoints for Nell. While they are all lightly drawn, Herriot’s sketches include enough detail to breathe some life into them, though none of them are strong enough to stand on their own. This is particularly true of 15-year-old Carmelita, the foster child who comes to stay at the farm with Nell for a couple of weeks and claims she can commune with animals. This animal telepathy is a strange inclusion, a device seemingly designed to set Carmelita up as the voice of the animals who cannot speak for themselves. She also conveniently serves as a stand-in for the reader, as Herriot uses her conversations with Nell for exposition.
Still, with thoughtful prose, Herriot weaves a tale in which the price of “progress” is all too high, paid in the form of lost habitats, disappearing species, and combative attitudes on either side of the environmental divide. That he ends on a note of hope is laudable; time will tell if that hope is well placed.