I had planned on writing something other than a book review this month, something a bit more creative. But on a recent trip through Nebraska I stopped for a while at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary, which sits along the shore of the gentle Platte River. Eagles diving for their morning catch, blue herons wading in grace, the flick of redwing black birds among the lash of spiky cattails. The quiet ebb of the morning worked its will.
Eventually, I made my way to the visitor center for a quick look around and once there found myself in a passionately earnest conversation about bird migration with the woman behind the counter. She was preaching to the choir, but she was so determined to speak for the birds, I let her speak. As I listened, I remembered a novel I’d recently finished, and that memory has led us here to yet another recommendation for LSQ readers.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy is set in the future and helmed by main character Franny Stone. It is part pirate story, part eco-warrior story, and part love story. It is exquisite.
When we first meet her, Franny is in Greenland. It is nesting season and she has just tagged three Arctic terns with tiny transmitters with the hope she can follow this last known colony’s last migration south. In the future that McConaghy created, fishing has all but decimated our oceans, leaving little food for migrating birds to survive on. These birds are not expected to survive. Desperate to bargain for passage so that she can track the birds, Franny enters into an uneasy alliance with commercial fisherman Ennis Malone and his crew of diverse outcasts. Nearly as desperate as Franny, they are looking for their Golden Catch, the one to make them rich before it all comes to an end. Making a deal with her devil, Franny tells Malone the birds will be following the fish, so if he takes her on board, with the help of her transmitters, she and her birds will find him his fish.
But in this future, the fishing industry worldwide is heavily monitored and a voyage of such a distance wouldn’t go unnoticed by authorities. What Franny asks is risky, not only legally but also physically. The Arctic tern has a migration route of up to 30,000 miles one way across deep-water oceans, some of which the captain has never navigated. Ennis Malone, however, is a gambler and he knows time is running short for his payload, so he agrees.
We learn early that Franny is an unreliable narrator: “I am of the leavers,” she tells us. “The searchers, the wanderers. The ilk of those taken by the tides.” We know she has been in prison. We know she has skipped parole to make this journey. She is feral in every sense of the word, especially when it comes to the sea, and McConaghy’s writing is never more powerful than when she writes from her character’s heart:
“There are empty shards of shells shining silver in the moonlight, and they grow into a shimmering trail I must follow…. [It] leads me into the water, so I take off my clothes and dive in, the cold a knife to my lungs and laughter flying from me in birdlike screeches.”
From the decks of the Saghani, Franny’s past emerges through flashbacks to her childhood on Galway’s shores, where she was left by her own wandering mother, to the National University of Ireland where she meets her husband Niall, a renowned conservation scientist. It is the moment of their first meeting that we get a further sense of Franny when she rescues three boys in a storm-tossed skiff by swimming out to reach them and bringing them home.
“… My first few running steps into the sea are a familiar shot of adrenaline to the heart. I’ve swum this ocean all year round…which has taught me not how to best it or even, truly, survive it, but simply to be aware of its capriciousness even after so many years. It could take me tonight just as it could have done when I was a child or may do when I’m gray. Only a great fool, my mother once told me, does not fear the sea.”
Franny’s perpetual lack of fear makes the Saghani crew uneasy, but as the fishing boat moves southward, friendships and loyalties bleed together. They become bound by fierce storms and moments of sacrifice. When an act of violence on land makes them fugitives, the crew realizes they are tied by more than their alliance, and Franny and Ennis understand that for them—each for their own reason—there will be no returning from the voyage.
While late night conversations on the shores of Galway or on the deck of the Saghani unspool the science of oceans and birds, Migrations is also steeped in the lyricism of poetry. Samuel, one of the crew who wants to retire, drink wine, and read poetry often quotes classics. And the essence of Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” breathes through the entire novel. Against the raging storms, both internal and those at sea, the Arctic terns—small, delicate, and white—are ever-present and moving. But when Ennis and Franny, alone at the end, barely survive one last storm, Franny gives over that hope:
“If they have died, all of them, it’s because we made the world impossible for them. So—for my own sanity—I release the Arctic terns from the burden of surviving what they shouldn’t have to….”
Migrations is the kind of novel that should fill us with despair, but nature has a will to survive, as does the indomitable instinct of the tern. By the novel’s end they have given us clemency—at least temporarily— for the actions of our past and a path of redemption for our future.