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A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

A Catalog of Birds (2017)

by Laura Harrington

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It is not often that I am moved to tears reading a book. This one dug in and touched all my vulnerable spots: VietNam vets, exquisite descriptions of nature, dashed dreams. The story revolves around the 1970 return of Billy Flynn from an unpopular war, the lone survivor of the crashed helicopter he was flying. He is filled with deep remorse and shame for his part in the war. His body is ravaged. His hearing is shot, the burns are disfiguring and painful, but, most of all, he has lost the ability to use his right hand, a huge loss to a budding artist who had dreams of being a pilot.

Sounds like a real downer, right? I prefer to think of it as a deep look into a nurturing family who works together to overcome a tragedy. The book might be about Billy but it is also a testimonial of love and support from his younger sister Nell, and the helpless reaction of his father Jack who had his own war wounds to overcome. He tells his daughter, "You can't leave it. You just end up carrying it." He goes on to muse that he "wishes he didn’t know the limits of love and hope, how little, really, can be covered over, hidden away, made whole."

Although there is a lot of heartache in this book, there is also a lot of life and hope expressed in Billy and Nell's relationship to each other and the natural world. Much of their childhood was spent in their explorations of the Finger Lakes region of New York where they grew up. They learned to sit quietly and study the birds while Billy honed his art skills in his field books. The only drawback to the story was the disappearance of Megan who was Nell's best friend and Billy's girlfriend. I didn't think she was integral to the story, but the void left by the mystery of her disappearing was distracting. I can only hope that the author left the door open to a sequel. I would like to spend more time with the Flynn family. ( )
2 vote Donna828 | Mar 9, 2019 |
Great read about a returning soldier from Vietnam. Very well wrote. Being a Veitnam Era Vet I really related to this story. ( )
  tamarack804 | Apr 26, 2018 |
"Don't just disappear on us." ~ Laura Harrington, A Catalog of Birds

I was born in the mid-1970s, in the shadow of the Vietnam War. I was too young to have any first-hand memories of the war, but not too young to eavesdrop on hushed conversations. I quickly learned the Vietnam War was a topic that was not suitable for young ears. That, of course, made it irresistible.

I remember playing in the living room while my parents watched the news and surreptitiously paying attention in case anything of relevance came on the television. Eventually, I learned that lyrics to the songs on the radio were also a good source of information. I grew up listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. And I remember watching Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

But true understanding—then as now—came from books.

Laura Harrington’s latest novel, A Catalog of Birds, takes place in upstate New York in 1970. Nell Flynn is about to graduate from high school to attend Cornell when her beloved older brother, Billy, comes home from Vietnam severely injured and struggling to understand why he survived while his co-pilot, a husband and father of two small children, did not.

Billy was not drafted to serve, but volunteered in order to become a pilot. Before the war, he and Nell spent hours watching birds and trying to build wings that would allow them to fly. By the time he was 12, Billy’s field journals were full of precise and detailed drawings of birds. He knew the species just by listening to their calls. But when he returns from Vietnam with severe burns and extensive nerve damage, he can no longer use his right hand, and his hearing is so impaired that he often can’t hear the birdsong. Plagued by nightmares, PTSD and survivor’s guilt, Billy falls into a deep depression and turns to alcohol to dull the pain.

But it is not just Billy’s body and spirit that have been destroyed. Nell volunteers to measure mercury levels in songbirds and notes that the toxin attacks a bird’s nervous system causing it to be too distracted to sit on their eggs long enough for them to hatch. Jack, Billy’s father, desperately tries to save the Elm trees in their yard and monitors water and soil contamination from pesticides.

Billy talks about the chemicals they used in Vietnam, and how at first his primary concern was for the birds:

“The first time I saw napalm I thought—you’ll laugh at me—I thought about the birds. The ibis and Himalayan swiftlets, Oriental skylarks. Birds, when below me people are burning.”

Now that he’s returned from the war and struggling with his own health issues, he sees a much larger picture:

“There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste. Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

Harrington’s writing is quick and sharp; it hurls you through the story and makes it difficult to catch your breath. An award-winning playwright, it perhaps should come as no surprise that she is a master at setting the scene and writing poignant, believable dialogue that somehow manages to avoid feeling like a lecture. The resulting story is rich and complex, made even more powerful by Harrington’s willingness to unflinching dig into the traumas of war.

But there is one subplot that feels underdeveloped and takes away from the whole: the unsolved disappearance of Nell’s best friend and Billy’s girlfriend, Megan. Disappearance is one of the core themes of the book, but we barely know Megan when she disappears. And while we are repeatedly told that she was Billy’s girlfriend and, once upon a time, Nell’s best friend, we are never really shown how important she was to either of the main characters. Harrington missed an opportunity to let us get to know Megan, to care about her and puzzle over her disappearance. Because this subplot was never fully integrated into the novel, it felt like an unnecessary distraction.

Harrington’s writing is compelling, beautiful and disconcerting. Her words propel you through the story. Nothing about this novel is comfortable, and that is one of its greatest strengths. Harrington doesn’t allow us the luxury of plausible deniability; she holds us accountable for the damage we do to one another and the natural world. I appreciate the discomfort this book causes, and the complexity and richness of the plot is incredibly gratifying. But the storyline about Megan never felt incorporated into the rest of the novel. It felt secondary. And that is its greatest weakness.


A Catalog of Birds, a novel by Laura Harrington, published by Europa Editions in 2017.

This book review is presented as part of my personal challenge to read and write a thoughtful review of at least 30 books in 2018. To learn more about this challenge, the books I have selected, and my imperfect rating system, visit www.thescribblersjournal.com ( )
  JoppaThoughts | Apr 1, 2018 |
This beautifully written book will definitely be in my list of top 10 books of 2017. I absolutely loved it - the characters, the plot and most of all the beautiful writing. I feel like I know these people and miss them now that the novel is done.

The novel is set in 1970 and is about the Flynn family - mom, dad, 2 boys and 3 girls. When they were growing up Billy and his sister Nell were always close and spent a lot of time together. Now Billy is coming home wounded in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. He has scars that can be seen but the internal pain is just as bad and more difficult to heal. He returns to his family home to try to recover by being in his familiar place with his family and especially his sister but as much as they try to help him, the more he pushes them away. This is a novel about love within a family and forgiveness of those we love.

The author does a fantastic job of painting a picture of what was going on in America in the early 70s - the war protests on campuses, the questioning of the government leadership by most people and the soldiers coming back with wounds both seen and unseen as they struggled to go back to living their lives like they did before their time in Vietnam.

I loved this novel and highly recommend it.

Thanks to goodreads for a copy of this novel to read and review. All opinions are my own. ( )
  susan0316 | Sep 16, 2017 |
_A Catalog of Birds_ is a novel about a family in Geneva, NY and what happens when the youngest son, Billy, returns from Vietnam, a wounded veteran. It's also about nature and listening, about trees and birds and lakes, about ambition and disappointment, loss and love. It was beautiful and I would have happily continued to read about these people and this place had the book been twice as long, even though their story often brought me to tears. ( )
  bkalish | Sep 10, 2017 |
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"Set in 1970, a watershed moment in American History, A Catalog of Birds tells the story of the Flynn family and the devastating impact of the Vietnam War. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between siblings Nell and Billy Flynn. Nell excels academically and is headed to college and a career in science. Billy, a passionate artist, enlists as a pilot to fulfill his lifelong dream of flying. He is the only survivor when his helicopter is shot down. When he returns home his wounds limit his ability to sketch or even hold a pencil. As Billy struggles to regain the life he once had, Nell and their family will have to do all that's possible to save him." --… (more)

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