Blackbird Flying is rich in its writing, in its storytelling- but perhaps most so in the author’s palpable reverence for every word and character, both avian and human, and all carefully chosen.
On page one, Ms. Nickerson introduces her relationship with blackbirds. “They are blackbirds, common and numerous, the ones we usually look past with our binoculars to find the egrets, the ibises, the herons, and ospreys. Their commonness attracts me.” She establishes that these are her people, a large flock sharing similar characteristics; an Irish Catholic family from County Kilkenny, now settled in New York. She conveys a deep appreciation of the blackbird–it’s adaptability to changing environments– and in so doing creates an intricate understanding of her mother, who has recently passed. She is clear that her family are red-winged blackbirds and her in depth knowledge of bird species is clearly established throughout the book.
Ms. Nickerson is equally astute in weaving into her family’s story colonial history, the psychology of memory, and spirituality. She draws connections between birding, early explorers and her own search for meaning. As the matriarch of the family, she likens her search for blackbirds to her search for her long-lost cousins and a deeper knowledge of her elders. She wants her flock to flourish.
This book is a love letter to her mother and to her blackbirds.
Her likening of her family of commoners–to common blackbirds is a sparkling homage. Her comparison, drawn between her search for colonial ancestors and the search for where she will lead her family next, is skillfully composed. Ms. Nickerson brings these seemingly incongruous roads together, in Gladwellian fashion, in the cordgrass and marshes that adorn the distance between her Carolina home and the sea. As she looks past the egrets and other stars of the bird world for her beloved blackbirds, she finds the unsettled ghosts of history and family and all are welcome there.
In one passage, she shares:
“Surely such obsession, cut short, must live on, an invisible hunger searching for what it cannot find. If dedication can become obsession, can it swell further into delusion: the whirlpool of perception and misperception, hallucination, and misbelief? This is where Fata Morgana might launch a ship, just over the horizon, and perhaps upside-down. I wonder if I might not have been hijacked by someone else’s obsessive quest.”
Her reference is to the explorers who did not complete their quests, whether for colonization or the documentation of species, flora, and fauna. It is related to her own quest- for meaning and for the survival of her blackbirds. The irony is not lost on me, however; the effect this book had on me was nothing short of an intellectual and spiritual hijacking by the author on her own quest. She shows us that we can have amazing, heartfelt adventures if we are open to an occasional narrative abduction. I’m glad I was.