Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Grandmother's Pigeon

I have loved Louise Erdrich's books and writing voice ever since I started reading her work - probably in college.  I found her adult novels then, probably reading in chronological order, since that is often how I read books, and her work with then-husband Michael Dorris.  And then, for a long time, I tried to keep up with her writing.  I read the book I'm writing about today, Grandmother's Pigeon, and loved it so much that I sought out my own copy.  But Erdrich's publishing went far faster than I could read, and I moved on to other authors for awhile.  Almost two years ago, I went to work at the Office of Public Instruction, right down the hall from our Indian Education division.  I started talking books with the Indian Education staff, and was reminded how much I liked her writing.  So more than a year ago, I set myself the goal of reading and re-reading Louise Erdrich's novels, both for children and adults.  And I knew I wanted to start with Grandmother's Pigeon.

This narrative begins with Grandmother.  The narrator, an unnamed young girl, begins with the words "As it turned out, Grandmother was a far more mysterious woman than any of us knew."  She describes her grandmother and her ways, ways that are slightly magical and definitely a little mysterious.  Then the granddaughter launches into the heart of the story - on a beach vacation with the family, Grandmother hops onto the back of a dolphin, and sets off for Greenland.  A year later, the family is forced to acknowledge that their Grandmother will not be returning.  The family (which includes an older brother) opens their Grandmother's bedroom door and begins to sort through her belongings.  Their astonishment grows when the mother picks up a nest and the eggs within it begin to hatch.  They are pigeons, eerily similar to the stuffed, taxidermied pigeon on Grandmother's windowsill.  As the pigeons grow, the mother begins to suspect something.  She calls in an ornithologist, who confirms her suspicions.  Somehow, the eggs that have hatched are passenger pigeons, which have been extinct for almost 100 years.  The media is called, and the three young pigeons become the focus of much attention.  But when it is determined that the pigeons are all male, cannot continue the species, and will more than likely spend their lives in a zoo, the children take matters into their own hands.  And in freeing the pigeons, the children make contact with their Grandmother, who they believed lost forever.

There are so many interesting things about this book that I'm not sure exactly where to start.  But maybe I'll begin with Grandmother herself.  As you may have realized from the summary, Grandmother is only in the first two pages.  And she only has a few lines of dialogue, just as she is leaving the family.  She is primarily seen through the eyes of her granddaughter, who seems to be about five years old.  But Erdrich's descriptions are rich, unusual and full of evocative detail.  The granddaughter describes how the Grandmother's tea could get them out of bed on days when they had exams at school, "when we felt slightly ill", before she even entered the room.  When the family enters their Grandmother's room a year after her disappearance, that description makes you want to enter the room yourself.  There is a wooden Sun-Tzu effigy of a horse on the windowsill, a petrified buffalo tooth, a Paul Klee painting.  All of these small details give you a strong sense of this woman you won't even meet again in the pages of this book.  She is quirky - someone of this world and yet not. Grandmother is mysterious, as the granddaughter says in the very first line of this book.  As a reader, I was sorry I would never get to meet her.

Another interesting thing about this way this book is composed is the issue of names.  There are no personal names in Grandmother's Pigeon.  Everyone in the book (except for the ornithologist) is family, and as such, is only described by their family relationship.  And this relationship is also very formal - not Grandma or Nana, but Grandmother.  The granddaughter only says "my mother" or "my father", not Mom or Dad.  Even the brother is not referred to by name.  This gives the book a formal feel, which is juxtaposed against the more casual, spontaneous, chaotic feel of the Grandmother's personality.  The granddaughter's narrative, with the longest descriptions of family relationships in each paragraph, is much more buttoned up in comparison.

The mysterious hatching of the three passenger pigeons raises questions for the ornithologist, who literally cannot believe her eyes.  In a neat twist, they restore her with some of Grandmother's own magic tea - while the children can be roused on "sick days" simply by the smell, the ornithologist takes two cups.  Erdrich is able to introduce the unique history of the passenger pigeons at this point as the ornithologist explains it to the children.  Erdrich's explanation of the pigeons' history is impressive at this point - it is accessible to young readers, but also sounds enough like a lecture to sound reasonable coming out of the ornithologist's mouth.  The ornithologist never seems to notice Grandmother's pigeon sitting proudly on the windowsill, or make any sort of connection between it and the hatched eggs.  The children are one step ahead of her.

The ornithologist says while describing the passenger pigeons, "nature is both tough and fragile."  This, to me, is the core of the book.  The passenger pigeon is extinct and yet alive.  The family misses their Grandmother dearly, grieving for her, and yet continues on in the strength she has given them.  For them, as for all of us, the correlation can be drawn to life - it can be tough and fragile too.  One moment their Grandmother is there with them, full of magic and spark, the next she has left a void (granted, by sailing off on a porpoise).  As the newly hatched pigeons begin to droop under all of the media attention, the family comes to the realization that they must be set free.  While this will be the only generation of passenger pigeons, they will survive and soar in their freedom - tough, yet fragile.

When you first look at the cover, you instinctively believe that the cover illustration is of the Grandmother.  After all, the title blazoned across the front is Grandmother's Pigeon, and the cover shows a woman, along with the two grandchildren, gaping in astonishment at the pigeons in a cage.  It is only as the book progresses that you realize it is not, in fact, the Grandmother, but the ornithologist.  Grandmother is absent from the cover of her own story, which is, I suspect, how she would like it.  This is yet another example of the mystery surrounding her.

Jim LaMarche's illustrations are full of wonder and perfectly echo Erdrich's tone and text.  Again, the Grandmother is only pictured in the first two pages of the book, and there is only one close-up.  On that page, where the text describes the children's attempts at a sick day and Grandmother's magic tea, she has strength, wisdom and even magic in her twinkly eyes and knowing smile.  Her dress is eclectic, with her wide-brimmed black hat and soft kerchief, but she is no-nonsense too.  And yet when she is astride the porpoise, off on an adventure, she is cheery and light.

The glow of the light in these illustrations are remarkable.  LaMarche has identifiable light sources in each and every page, from the light pouring into Grandmother's dusty room through the window to the hot sun on the family's beach vacation.  That is true of every illustration except three.  The children decide to release the pigeons in the dead of night, on a foggy, moonlit night.  Mist pools around the tree trunks, giving a hazy look to the dark, shadowy landscape.  But even then stars glisten and moonlight highlights the pigeons' wings as they take off into the wilderness.  In their escape there is still mystery and magic.

There are so many more things I could say about this book.  While this book is a picture book, the text is long and detailed and requires comprehension beyond that of a young child.  But many of the details of the book may also help stretch a child's curiosity to explore whether you actually could ride a dolphin to Greenland, to learn more about passenger pigeons, or Paul Klee's paintings.  Grandmother's knowledge can help create more connections for readers.  

In the end, not even Grandmother's own family, who knows many of the details of her life, really knows her.  We exit the book with just as many questions about her as when her granddaughter began: "As it turned out, Grandmother was a far more mysterious woman than any of us knew."

Grandmother's Pigeon.  Louise Erdrich; illustrated by Jim LaMarche.  Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, 1999.

borrowed from Montana Office of Public Instruction Resource Center

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