Books | March 2016
“A feather may look weak. Vulnerable. But truth is, it’s a powerful little thing.”
The Feathered Bone opens as childhood best friends chaperone a tour of Mardi Gras World, a New Orleans tourist trap, on a field trip with their children’s sixth grade class. The children meet an artist who explains that ladies’ corsets used to be made from whalebone, but then someone started making them from feathers instead; women loved the new featherbone corsets, as they allowed flexibility and breathing room in the restrictive undergarments—they felt free for the first time. This scene introduces the feather as an elegant and multifaceted motif interwoven throughout Mississippi author Julie Cantrell’s powerful third novel.
The date is October 29, 2004, a little less than a year before Hurricane Katrina will forever alter the landscape and history of the Crescent City and its people. Cantrell pulls the reader into protagonist Amanda Salassi’s story with first person present-tense narration; the effect is to give a sense of experiential immediacy to her story. “A magic moves the day as if anything could happen. Perhaps it’s the pulse of jazz in the air, or the rhythmic churn of the riverboats, or the warm winds that swoop the levee, but there’ a hint of mystery surrounding us. Something has charged the marrow walled within my bones. Pay attention, it says. And so I do.”
Despite this presentiment, Amanda can’t prevent the unimaginable — Sarah, her best friend’s daughter, and Amanda’s own daughter Ellie’s best friend, disappears from the bathroom of the always-crowded Café du Monde. Did she fall into the river? Was she taken? The backpack Sarah was carrying is left behind in the bathroom—an ominous indication that Sarah did not simply wander away from her classmates. The girls and their classmates have just had the last golden hours of innocent childhood ripped away.
At first, Amanda has difficulty processing that what happened is even real: “I run scenes through my mind like the series of images we viewed earlier today on the oversized screen in the Mardi Gras film room. Only there is no well-rehearsed narrator making sense of this sequence. I focus, trying to find clues we’re overlooking. Who was here? Why didn’t Sarah come back from that restroom? Why did she leave the backpack? Where in the world can she be?
What follows is an emotionally harrowing, and at times devastating, story of a woman, her family, and a close-knit community thrown into the waking nightmare of not knowing whether Sarah is alive or dead, where she is, who may have her, or what they are subjecting her to. Amanda was supposed to be keeping her eye on Sarah at the busy cafe, and her daughter, Ellie, was with her just before she disappeared. Amanda struggles mightily with grief and guilt and balancing her search efforts with the duties of her career, as well as that of wife and mother. At the same time, Ellie misses her friend desperately and begins to disappear into a fog of survivor’s guilt and depression.
Yet God’s eye is on the sparrow, a mantra Cantrell repeats throughout the novel via the strong--and brutally tested--faith of her characters.
The Feathered Bone is a loaded weapon of a book; set immediately before and in the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it is a challenging novel of emotional and spiritual complexity. It’s gritty without being bleak, and soul-stirring without being sentimental. The characters’ religious faith is a centerpiece of the story, but its tone and conclusions are far from preachy or pat. Through the pain, Amanda and her circle of friends and family arrive at varying and tenuous degrees of peace, and discover that like a feather, they are much stronger than they look or ever imagined. Cantrell has written a brave book that will take the reader on an empathetic journey into the depths and back out again on the other side.
His Eye is on the Sparrow
Profound questions about faith, family, and self-determination haunt
The Feathered Bone, Julie Cantrell’s new novel
Story by Kathryn Justice Leache