SPARROW MIGRATIONS, by Cari Noga
Reviewed by Marilyn Zimmerman
When Canada geese take out both engines of a passenger plane -- not just one, as is usually the case -- the lives of three families impacted by the emergency landing on the Hudson River in January, 2009, change in ways they could never have imagined. Cari Noga’s first novel, Sparrow Migrations, puts the reader on three intersecting life paths: on one of the rescue ferries with an autistic adolescent and his loving but often frustrated parents; on the wing of the plane where icy water creeps up the ankles of an infertile woman (infertility her biggest ongoing life challenge) while her husband stands next to her texting the lab where he works; and back on the ferry with a minister’s wife and her female lover, who have no idea the television cameras have captured their image and will broadcast it to the world.
The story follows these three families beginning on that dramatic day. For the autistic boy, the bird strike becomes a connection with his father and a window out of which he can view the world; the infertile wife learns that her sister has a rare genetic disease and must then make her own decision about genetic testing and in vitro fertilization; while the minister’s wife must wrestle with her own truth and what its exposure does to her family. As these diverse characters struggle with deceit, infidelity, and issues of communication, their lives change, and they come ever closer to encountering one another again, this time in quite a different setting,. The common feature in the second intersection is, once again, birds.
The author’s bio tells us that Cari Noga is the mother of an autistic son, and her experience with the subtleties of that condition resonate clearly in this well-written story. Images of Robby with the hood of his Detroit Lions sweatshirt pulled tight around his face, his noise-muffling headphones underneath, his annoyance with his well-meaning parents, his obsession with numbers (of the geese in the river, their flight speed, the outside temperature, and later, counting birds for the local Audubon chapter), and his need to be in control of his environment, stayed with me long after I had finished the novel. Noga’s insights about this boy’s mind and his view of the world ring true and leave the reader with a sense of what it must be like to live with this kind of autism. She gives the reader a poignant gift with the character of Robby Palmer.
Noga’s other characters in Sparrow Migrations learn lessons about difficult and unsought choices parents must face. Besides the obvious challenges of raising an autistic child, the idea of giving birth to a child who could carry a disabling genetic condition, as well as the balance between living one’s own most authentic life or giving it up for a child -- or something in between -- are all explored with insight and realism.
Like sparrows, ordinary birds we might easily fail to notice but each one, we are told in Scripture, important to God, the seemingly ordinary parents in Noga’s graceful book learn to cope with the changes life brings their way, and, through their struggles and insights, each character becomes significant to the reader.
Marilyn Zimmerman is a former elementary school teacher, a retired attorney, a lover of books, and a writer. She lives on a farm outside Northport with her husband and their very spoiled cat named Marmalade.
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Bookseller's Postscript: Cari Noga, whose Road Biking Michigan was published in 2005, this time around has self-published Sparrow Migrations, her first novel, but she has also done something I’ve never seen done before: In addition to the novel, she has also self-published an excerpt from it as a stand-alone book, this shorter story titled Plover Pilgrimage. Glenn Wolf did the cover illustration. Slightly over 40 pages, Plover Pilgrimage contains the story of the visit Robby and his parents make to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in plover nesting season. Sparrow Migrations is $14.95 in paperback, Plover Pilgrimage only $4.95. It’s interesting to me how many people decide to buy both, even knowing that the smaller book is an excerpt of the complete novel. They buy the complete novel for themselves and the shorter story to send to friends. Thus Plover Pilgrimage will introduce new readers to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and to the fiction of Cari Noga at the same time. Clever author! - pj