A review of When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky by Margaret Verble.
Margaret Verble, the author of Maud’s Line (2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist) and Cherokee America, returns to once again tangle with the intricate knot of racial and class divides present in 1920s Tennessee. Her new novel, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky, is a wild ride of horse diving, mysterious hippopotamus illnesses and roaming spirits—all set in an amusement park atop a desecrated Native American burial ground.
The story leaps off from the beginning with Two Feathers, the novel’s titular character, returning to horse diving after months of recovering from an injury. Originally from the 101 Ranch of Wild West show fame, Two has grown up under spotlight and scrutiny due to her curated talents and her Cherokee ancestry. As such, she is used to admirers.
Unfortunately, the love notes sent by the anonymous Strong-Red-Wolf are the start of a new set of terrible events for the park and its residents. Two is uninterested in engaging in a romance with Strong-Red-Wolf and ignores the letters, but he stalks and spies on her anyway.
Woven into this tumultuous one-sided affair are stories of the other residents in the park. Included are the eclectic head zookeeper, Clive Lovett, as he struggles to deal with the mental toll war left on his psyche; Henry Crawford, a man from a wealthy black family who is enamored with Bonita, a woman from another wealthy black family but with different values; and Little Elk, the spirit of an ancient Cherokee warrior that has taken an interest in Two. Even with these varying storylines, each has a key role to play when tragedy strikes Two and her equine companion, Ocher.
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky truly shines with the dramas created between the characters. While the story has supernatural elements, the crux of everything is the relationships between the living characters. They are constantly having to navigate social expectations of the time while solving mysteries and working in the park. Crawford and Two, close friends, do not even feel safe conversing unless there is a horse between them.
Two is aware of how easily her views could enrage a white person and, for the most part, holds her tongue. By the time Two rejects the white Strong-Red-Wolf, readers are already aware of the repercussions that could happen as a result. The suspense of wondering what he will do, mixed with wondering what society will allow him to get away with, makes even the most mundane scenes tense with expectation.
While so much enjoyment of this novel is derived from its characters, there does seem to be some useless ones that are introduced. This can be helpful in establishing how everything is interconnected in such a class- and race-aware society., but you have to wonder whether their inclusion was necessary. For example, Glendale Park’s owner James Shackleford constantly despairs his son Lewis’s actions, and there is a buildup that Lewis might be a major player in the finale of the novel, but he never reaches past background character status.
Overall, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky is an enjoyable read for those that like slice-of-life moments, a pinch of the supernatural and realism-based explorations of a historical time period.
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky is one of our 2021-22 Fall/Winter Reads. Find the entire list here.