Fledger by Nicholas Barrett, Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

fledgerFledger: a Novel, by Nicholas Barrett.
NYC, Macmillan Publishing Co., September 1985, hardcover $13.95 (207 pages).

Ever since Adams’ Watership Down was published in 1972, just about any “realistic” nature fantasy centered upon one particular species has been “high profiled” as a “Watership Down for” (whatever species is featured). Fledger is certainly a Watership Down for puffins.

A flock of puffins is returning to Land (specifically a bleak, rocky shoreline) to dig burrows and lay eggs after three years of living at sea upon ice floes. Rock Samphire, a hen, is distraught and insulted because her mate, Sorrel, will not listen seriously to her dreams of impending disaster if they continue to build their rookery as puffins always have; on the Land and upon a small island just offshore. Ringleader, the flock leader, dismisses her dreams because the Golden Lord only sends true dreams to flock leaders like himself, and he has not had any nightmares. Rock Samphire stops protesting, but she builds a secret burrow for her egg on the other side of the island, apart from the other puffins. This just removes her from their protection, and she is eaten by the swaabies (great black-backed seagulls) just after laying their egg. Ringleader orders Sorrel to raise the chick, Goldie (Golden Samphire), in secrecy.

Goldie is predisposed from birth to believe in the puffins’ doctrine as revealed by Ringleader:

“‘And you must be Ringleader, sir,’ chirped the little bird. [No, it’s Sandpiper.] ‘And you have come to give me the Faith that I shall need to leave this strange burrow on the day when the Golden Lord calls me and the other fledger puffins down to the sea together to swim away from the Land.” (p. 33)

Goldie is informed that Ringleader has been crippled by swaabies. “The little chick looked from one of them to the other, dismayed: ‘Where am I going to get my Faith now?’ he pleaded. Both older birds ignored him.” (ibid.)

Goldie is already separate from the other fledgers, and he is left completely alone when his father disappears; whether eaten by swaabies or “answering instead, perhaps, the Lord’s call back to the open sea along with all the other flockers.” (p. 38) Goldie is sure that the Lord is punishing him for something or other:

“‘Please don’t be angry with me, Lord,’ called Goldie, as he cowered in his cave. ‘I am trying to have Faith in You – but nobody taught me how: You called my father back to the open sea before he could tell me any of the things I needed to know.’” (p. 39)

A lightning strike from the almost-permanent storm clouds above collapses a rock column across the strait, connecting Puffin Island to the Land. This is interpreted by Goldie as a sign from the Lord that he should leave his burrow and join the other fledgers at sea. But after an unsatisfactory encounter with an atheistic seal, Goldie is horrified to discover that all the other puffin fledgers have been eaten that morning before they could take to the sea, by a horde of rats who have overrun the puffins’ burrows. Only the crippled Ringleader is left, humiliated by Hemlock’s sadistic rats. Ringleader orders Goldie to escape to sea and warn the flockers not to return, but before he can, he is captured by the rats.

“Although Goldie had never seen a rat before, he was in no doubt that he was looking at one now. The creature was nearly twice his size and sat foursquare in front of him on plump pink haunches as, with equally pink and pudgy forepaws, it dusted the gritty soil from its matted orange-brown coat. Brown eyes looked nervously at him from the sharp pointed face, displaying what might have passed for gentleness had the creature not suddenly revealed rows of sharp yellow teeth when it opened its mouth to speak.” (p. 57)

Goldie is sentenced to fight to the death with the rats’ champion, Bubo. But before the fight can take place, he is rescued by Hellebore, a rattess belonging to the faction of Mezereon, the pack leader back on the Land. Briefly, the rat pack is divided into two factions, the legitimists led by Mezereon and the young rebels led by Hemlock and Bubo. Hemlock’s gang has taken over Puffin Island despite Mezereon’s order against doing so, and his rats are waiting for the adult puffins to return so he can kill or enslave them. Mezereon’s plan is to help Goldie to escape to sea (after the fight) and warn the fledgers against returning. This is Goldie’s plan, but now he would be doing it on Mezereon’s terms.

The jacket blurb says, “And when marauders invade the island, it is Goldie, who through heroic acts of bravery and perseverance, must rescue his fellow puffins from destruction.” Fledger is actually more complex then that. The novel splits to follow four factions, each involving treachery or self-interest: Hemlock’s, Bubo’s, and the rats on Puffin Island’s; Mezereon’s, Hellebore’s, and the rats on the Land; Goldie’s and the puffins at sea who want to rescue Ringleader; and their leader, Sandpiper, with the puffins who don’t want to rescue Ringleader.

Goldie eventually becomes strong enough that, when Sandpiper refuses to let any puffins go to Ringleader’s aid, he and two other daring young puffins, Carrageen and Purslane, organize a clandestine rescue mission and a plot to turn the rat factions against each other:

“‘Help comes to those who help themselves,’ said Goldie briskly [to Ringleader]. ‘That’s one thing I learned from the rats. If the Lord had wanted your life, He would have taken it by now, and if He had permitted the Life Forces to abandon you, then you would not have been able to squeeze through that hole back there with your damaged wing – because you were prepared to withstand great pain to climb through.’” (pgs. 169-170)

Goldie never stops being a bit holier-than-thou. But he matures from a timid fledger who constantly cries for Divine guidance to a confident adult who tempers his faith with self-reliance:

“As he sneaked past the last burrow on the landward fringe of the colony, Goldie allowed himself a sigh, and offered up silent thanks to the Golden Lord for his safe delivery past the rat holes.” (p. 172)

On the other hand, maybe Goldie’s faith in the Golden Lord is an attempt to copy the rabbits’ devotion to Frith. Fledger is, above all, a Watership Down for puffins.

Fledger is advertised as A Book For All Ages. Instead, it seems to be a Young Adult novel hoping that it will be mistaken for an adult book. The dust jacket is by Anne Bascove, an artist whose paintings have had many exhibitions in America and in Europe.

Fred Patten