In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld
Joyce Hinnefeld’s debut novel In Hovering Flight opens with a family death. Thirty-four-year-old Scarlet has come home for her mother’s passing which takes place in the comfort of family and close friends. Hinnefeld uses this contemplative moment to reach back to the time when Scarlet’s parents first met and her mother’s lifelong affection for birds began. The book then becomes less about her death and more about Addie Kavanaugh’s observations of the people she loved and the animals she would paint and sculpt until she died.
Hinnefeld uses Addie’s field guide entries to show her growing feelings for her husband Tom (initially one of her teachers) and her deepening interest in the environment. As intimate as a diary, the field notes capture Addie’s voice, which ranges from naïve affection for a new obsession to the assured self awareness of an acclaimed artist. She addresses her future husband Tom in the early entries so readers can follow her developing crush and their subsequent (and rather scandalous) romance. But it is before that that readers meet the college student whose life is the backbone of Hinnefeld’s narrative. Here she is in that beginning:
I am in love with birds, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I’m afraid I’ve come to this love too late. According to all the stories you’re telling us, all the great lovers of birds -- John James Audubon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Roger Tory Peterson, and you -- discovered their passion at an early age. Some important person handed them a pair of field glasses or a field guide or a stuffed dead bird and that was it; they were hooked.
But I’m twenty-one-years old.
And do I need to mention that they were also always boys?
Addie’s best friends, who are with her in Tom’s class and watch their love unfold, are also critical parts of the story although her relationships with Cora and Lou seem underdeveloped. They do contribute to the advancement of the plot in various ways but it is only through Addie’s recollections in the field notes that Cora or Lou comes alive for the reader. When observed through the prism of Tom or Scarlet’s memories, as they are for much of the novel, the secondary characters remain strictly background. This is not meant as a harsh criticism however, as the Kavanaugh family carries the plot quite effectively on its own. But it does sometimes leave the reader wondering if Cora and Lou are more window dressing -- present for the duration of the story simply so their more explosive contributions will not be quite as surprising.
More than just a family drama, In Hovering Flight is an examination of a life ruled by artistic passion. Addie discovers that her art is best served when hand in hand with Tom’s study of ornithology and together the two of them become obsessed, in different ways, with birds. Scarlet finds herself struggling against her family’s affinity for nature. Should she take her own passion for poetry and combine with Addie’s life’s work or try to break free from her parents? This is the question that drives Scarlet through her mother’s illness and death and still plagues her at the very end, as she harbors a secret that ties all the characters together.
In Hovering Flight crept up on me, and it was especially through young Addie’s character that I felt the story took off. Her determination to do something with her artistic ability and then her discovery of birds, which become the cornerstone of every decision that follows, made for very compelling reading. From slightly bemused student to ardent environmentalist, everything in Addie’s life is tied to what she sees in birds and even when her passion seems to leave Tom behind (which is ironic on multiple levels), it still rings true. Hinnefeld has written the story of a woman possessed, and what becomes of everyone else around her. It is a stirring novel about art and life and love that very quietly sweeps the reader along. In the end Addie’s final decision will come as no surprise -- nor will Tom’s or Scarlet’s. You know the Kavanaughs quite well be the last page and will be sad to let them go.
In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld