Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner; 240 pages; $24).
In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores how we are shaped by nature and how, in turn, nature shapes us. Sometimes our relationship with nature is beautiful, but sometimes it can turn brutal. Bergman’s short story debut collection, which consists of twelve stories, is deeply moving and intensely thought-provoking.
Many of Bergman’s stories concentrate on the theme of motherhood. Bergman tells all of her stories from the point of view of women. This technique makes sense. Women, like female animals, have the ability to create and sustain life. We nurture and ferociously protect our young. In “Housewifely Arts,” one of my favorites and one of Bergman’s strongest, a woman and her son go on a desperate journey to find her dead mother’s African Gray Parrot. What is so special about this creature, you may ask. The bird mimics the mother’s voice and she wants to hear her once again. The woman in the story longs to reconnect with her mother; her desire is fruitless. Other women in Bergman’s tale want to have children of their own. In “The Urban Coop,” a childless woman is so close to her dog that the canine suffers separation anxiety and an accident when he is not with his mistress. The dog substitutes for a child. In “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” an alcoholic holds a wild animal in her arms and seeks atonement for the way she raised her daughter. In another of my favorites, “Yesterday’s Whales,” Bergman introduces us to a woman whose boyfriend believes the end of the world is nigh. He sees no point in bringing children into a world that is a ticking time bomb. The woman gets pregnant and is then forced to make a choice. Bergman writes with cleverness and compassion. These stories will fill you with emotion. However, not all these tales are about motherhood.
Other stories focus on nature and the environment. In Bergman’s title story and another of her finest, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” a young woman hires an unsavory guide to take her and her father on a dangerous quest to find an ivory-billed woodpecker that may or may not be extinct. Their journey leads to horrific consequences. Bergman shows that no matter how hard we try, we cannot tame nature. Indeed, as the doctor finds out in “Saving Face,” there is an animal in every one of us. Some of us hide it better than others do. Bergman does not shy away from discussing the precarious state of our environment. In our world, nature is in danger. In a story called “2050,” Bergman takes us into the future. The ocean is dying. For one woman, her father’s whole life is the ocean and the life it sustains. As the ocean declines, so does the woman’s father. This is perhaps the most sobering of Bergman’s stories. She gives us something to think about.
In Bergman’s stories, the bonds we have with animals and the connections they have with us shine. Bergman is a wonderful new talent. Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2012 and an Indie Next Pick for March. Bergman does so well with her subject for a reason. She lives in Vermont on a farm with her husband, a veterinarian, and their rescue animals. If you love short stories or enjoy books about people and their animal companions, then this is a must-read for you. I happen to think it is an excellent pick for spring. Read it outside where you can listen to the birds singing.