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'Two Feathers' is a flawed but gripping novel of racism in the Prohibition-era South

Mariner Books

It's the summer of 1926 in Nashville, Tenn., and a young Cherokee woman named Two Feathers is living something like her best life. She's working as a horse diver at the Glendale Park Zoo, jumping with her mare, Ocher, 40 feet into a pool, to the delight of amazed onlookers. It's hard work, but it enables her to send money back to her family in Oklahoma — all things considered, she doesn't have too many complaints.

And then things go very, very wrong. In When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky, novelist Margaret Verble takes an interesting look at the Prohibition-era American South and its long history of racism. It's not a perfect novel, but at its best, it's a gripping one.

Two is on loan to the Glendale Park Zoo "from the 101, the last Wild West show in existence." Her work as a horse diver suits her just fine: "She knew early on that she didn't want to tend chickens, stand over boiling water canning vegetables, or cook for people. She wanted to ride horses and shoot guns."

And she's good at it. But her life is thrown into disarray when a dive goes wrong, sending Two and Ocher into a sinkhole. Two is rescued by Clive, the park's zookeeper, and treated for a broken leg. But Ocher dies, sending Two into a deep depression: "Ocher was as good as a human. Or better. All horses were."

Two refuses to go back to Oklahoma to heal, so she settles in her dormitory and passes the time with friends including Crawford, a zoo employee who's aware that he's seen as a second-class citizen because he's Black. (The park allows Black people to work there, and to take part on the rides if they're "well-behaved" and accompanied by a white person — it "was liberal that way," Verble archly notes.)

Her friendship with Crawford and a few other co-workers aside, things don't get easier for Two: she finds herself being stalked by Jack, a young worker at the zoo who's almost a parody of evil: "He was on the path to getting what he wanted ... it had to do with sex with Two. Having her at his disposal. Keeping her as his own. His only pleasure came from feeling in control and pulling things over on people. He liked lording over animals. And sex with an inferior race didn't put him off at all."

Two is also being followed by Little Elk, a ghost who seems to keep watch over her, while at the same time trying to stop the desecration of the graves that Glendale was built upon. Little Elk is invisible to all of the living except for Clive, who himself is haunted by memories of war. All of their lives collide in the book's climax, which is a genuinely exciting one.

'When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky' isn't without its flaws, but it's a compelling novel from an author who writes with sensitivity and compassion.

Verble is an immensely gifted writer, but she does make a few missteps here. The book shifts points of view among several characters, and too many of the chapters that aren't focused on Two turn out to be shaggy-dog stories — they're written well, and illuminate some of the history of 1920s Tennessee, but don't add much to the main thread of the novel. Verble is clearly fascinated by Glendale, which really existed, and she's clearly done her research, but it seems like she's tried to fit too much of what she's learned into the novel.

But while the novel can seem unfocused at times, Verble makes up for it with her real narrative skill. Her occasional peregrinations aside, the book moves quickly, and she manages to stick the landing thanks to a few clever plot twists.

Verble's characters are mostly memorable ones, particularly Two. It's difficult to pull off an original version of the tough-but-vulnerable archetype, but Verble does it quite well, giving the young woman a real personality that comes through in her terse but tender dialogue. Crawford, too, is a fascinating character, though the reader is left wishing he'd figured into the novel a little more. And the chapters featuring Little Elk are executed with real finesse; while having a character who's a ghost can come off as gimmicky, Verble plays it with a straight face, and the gambit works.

When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky isn't without its flaws, but it's a compelling novel from an author who writes with sensitivity and compassion. For readers with an interest in 20th-century American history, it's certainly a ride worth taking.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.