The Starling God, by Tanya Sousa – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
“Trying to make sense of humanity’s quirky and often devastating behaviors, birds formed a religion complete with mythology, lore and fissured beliefs.
“The tenuous world-view of birds, and perhaps humans too, is about to be challenged by the coming of a Starling of Prophecy and the truth He is called to discover and ultimately share.” (back-cover blurb)
The Starling God is reminiscent of the 1972 novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. That novel invented a religion and a language for its animal species, the rabbits, as The Starling God also creates a religion and language for birds. It is also reminiscent of the 1987 Japanese motion picture Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare/Twilight of the Cockroaches, written and directed by Hiroaki Yoshida. That movie shows a detailed animal (or insect) religion based upon their belief of their relationship with humans, which turns out to be completely erroneous.
In the Prologue a nameless woman who is a wildlife rehabilitator, and who wears flower-print dresses, is called to a trailer park. One of its residents is distraught over the park management’s eradication of a starling’s nest. The woman takes three starling chicks home and nurses them. One fledgling survives, which she prepares to release back into the wild when it is old enough to fend for itself.
She takes the young starling outdoors for short practice flights around her yard, where she puts out food for birds. These include Dove L’al and his mate L’in, and a flock of redwing blackbirds led by Rem. L’al is a Teller, a religious leader who tells the birds who their God is and what she wants.
“Birds here called this God ‘Flower’ since she more often than not chose plumage to reflect their shapes and colors.” (p. 3)
Since the young starling comes from inside the woman’s house, L’al excitedly identifies him as a Chosen One, privileged to live with a God, rather than an ordinary bird. And since the young starling is used to calling the woman his Mother, he is thought to be more than that.
“‘There is something very rare about this one,’ L’in nearly whispered. ‘We have heard of the lost or injured and then Chosen, but L’al, he called Flower Mother.’
The realization struck him. The young starling wasn’t Chosen, taken in and nourished, he was of the Gods – Equal. He had heard of this as well, but hadn’t been sure if it was myth. In truth, he’d always doubted…” (p. 3)
Equal or not, since the starling has no idea of the religion (or Lore) of the birds, L’al takes him under his wing to teach him. The starling, named SL’an (a privileged name with two capitals), and the reader learns this Lore. The God Flower’s yard, and any place where a human has a bird feeder or throws crumbs or seed for the birds, is a Sacred Space. “‘I call Your Mother ‘Flower’,’ L’al continued. ‘Since Law is kept here, She provides many things. All of this,’ L’al pulled his breast up high and spread his wings for emphasis, ‘is from God Flower’s wings to reward us. See where robins, and starlings like Yourself, and cowbirds move through short grass? Flower keeps large spaces of grass short so they may find food there easily. The very flowers spread about are placed by Her will, and attract more insects in the warm months, offer nectar for hummingbirds, and put forth seeds in winter when many other foods have become buried in snows.’” (p. 16) Besides Tellers and Chosen, there are Watchers (birds like Rem who look out for any dangers), Seekers (birds who look for new knowledge about the Gods and bring it to the Tellers), Praisers (loud songbirds), Cleaners (carrion eaters), Mentors (teachers – Mentor Diver, a starling, teaches Unified Flight), and more. Blooders are any carnivores who eat birds; mammals and raptors.
This Lore is not universal among birds, though. SL’an is shocked to learn that the swallows, and other birds that maintain their distance from humans, have their own beliefs. The swallows are especially critical of humans, who destroy the birds’ mud nests on the outside of their houses:
“‘They don’t believe the Gods are higher than bird?’
Bard [another starling] shook his head heartily. ‘Oh, much more than that. Swallows not only believe the Gods are not higher, but they see Them a blight to birds and all creatures that crawl or fly on the earth.’” (p. 50)
The starlings, of course, concoct a divine rationalization why the Gods, who are always benevolent and good, destroy the swallows’ nests. The avian Lores (as Sousa describes them) are complex. As SL’an grows older and leaves God Flower’s home for good, he meets many other birds such as Hralla and Hroo the robins, Steep the goldfinch, Coor the pigeon, Jal the crow, nameless blue jays and warblers and many more starlings and doves. He learns to fly in a starling flock in their Unified Flight. (Starling flocks in flight often contain hundreds of birds that avoid colliding with each other.) He is confused by other bird species’ Lores that are often contradictory, and he is horrified to be told that a Blooder who kills and eats one of his best friends was also rescued, raised to adulthood, and released by his own God Flower.
All birds are expected to choose a profession, and SL’an wants to become both a Seeker and a Teller. Eventually he (or He) encounters so many contradictions that he leaves his Sacred Space and the lands that he has always known to wander into the world, discover the Lores of other creatures, and try to reconcile them all into a Universal Truth. SL’an meets sparrows, gulls, and more as he journeys toward the Great Undrinkable Water where whales live. What he finds becomes the conclusion of The Starling God.
To readers used to the sole religions of rabbits, cats, mice, and other single species animal fantasies, The Starling God with its many Lores will probably be as confusing as it is to SL’an. Tanya Sousa tells a deliberately complex story that is ultimately rewarding. Hang in there and you won’t be disappointed.