A funny thing about stories–within ten minutes of starting a good one (whether reading a book or watching a show), I’m compelled to find out what happens to the protagonist as soon as possible. I’d be perfectly fine without meeting said hero or heroine, but once I’m hooked, I’m not satisfied until the tale ends.
No wonder Scheherazade used stories to lure the Arabian king night after night.
By story’s end, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes, I’ve been changed in some way. The book (or show) has possibly either challenged my thinking or touched my heart. The way a good friend does.
“A blessed companion is a book–a book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend,
a book that, at a touch, pours its heart into our own.” ~Douglas Jerrold
The Nature of Small Birds by Susie Finkbeiner is such a book. Bruce Matthews, his wife Linda, and their daughter Sonny relay the adoption of Vietnamese war orphan Minh into their family and how it plays out, captured through the windows of 1975, 1988, and 2013. A tender story, it reveals the heart of adoption and how it impacts each family member differently over the years.
Back Cover Blurb
In 1975, three thousand children were airlifted out of Saigon to be adopted into Western homes. When Mindy, one of those children, announces her plans to return to Vietnam to find her birth mother, her loving adopted family is suddenly thrown back to the events surrounding her unconventional arrival in their lives.
Though her father supports Mindy’s desire to meet her family of origin, he struggles privately with an unsettling fear that he’ll lose the daughter he’s poured his heart into. Mindy’s mother undergoes the emotional roller coaster inherent in the adoption of a child from a war-torn country, discovering the joy hidden amid the difficulties. And Mindy’s sister helps her sort through relics that whisper of the effect the trauma of war has had on their family–but also speak of the beauty of overcoming.
Told through three strong voices in three compelling timelines, The Nature of Small Birds is a hopeful story that explores the meaning of family far beyond genetic code.
“There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” Bruce Matthews quotes from Hamlet. An avid reader of fiction and known to cry at movies, this tender-hearted father and grandfather has watched his girls grow into women and now fears losing one of them.
His second daughter Minh–or Mindy–adopted from Vietnam and now in her forties, wants to find her birth mother. Bruce realizes that small birds will fly and leave the nest, whether he’s ready or not.
He seeks additional solace in Emily Dickinson: “Hope is a little bird, singing her heart out during a terrible storm.”
No doubt you’re catching the bird metaphor here.
His wife Linda is an ex-hippie who once dreamed of playing with Janis Joplin, then settled into family life. In the 1970s, Bruce and Linda’s oldest, five-year-old Sonny, is learning to ride a bicycle around the time that Minh joins them at age four. Holly comes along fourteen years later.
The story is told from three perspectives: Linda in 1975–when Minh is adopted; older sister Sonny in 1988, as a high school senior; and Bruce in 2013, reflecting over the years and facing new challenges as Minh explores her roots.
We come alongside each of them as chapters alternate among the decades. Particularly touching is Linda’s portrayal of motherhood as she and Bruce welcome little Minh–now Mindy–into their home.
Bruce’s mom Hilda gives new meaning to the term mother-in-law. Going beyond typical stereotypes, she thrives on fault-finding as Linda’s nemesis. Linda can’t even drink coffee to suit Hilda who believes that anyone using cream and sugar is unworthy to drink it. Hilda’s the type who would blame her daughter-in-law for a grandchild’s wrong eye color–having her grandpa’s eyes rather than her grandma’s.
And that’s before Minh even enters the family.
Hilda can’t accept her Vietnamese grandchild because her son Dale was killed in Vietnam. Her son Chris spent thirteen months at war and returned with sullen silence and nightmares, bearing “wounds that had cut far deeper than skin and muscle and bone.” Her grief over Dale and Chris shifts to Mindy, a reminder of these losses.
Bruce and his brother Chris’s arguments at the dinner table don’t help. Bruce chides Chris for joining the war effort to begin with. In contrast, Bruce and Linda had protested the war. They’d gone around singing about peace to hippies, even marched in Washington, believing they were doing something that matters. Yet another reason for second guessing himself, forty-plus years later.
In 1988, Sonny is a high school senior and Mindy a junior, both given to typical sisterly squabbles. While mom Linda is pregnant with their baby sister, Sonny is a typical teen who loves the mall and wants to attend prom with the popular guy. Mindy is a goody two-shoes who loves reading. She still has nightmares, leftovers from her first four years of life.
Plugging readers into each decade are references to pop culture, such as Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” in 1975, Cindi Lauper in 1988, and the movie The Outsiders. In the 1970s, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite report war scenarios on television.
Some readers may say this story builds slowly, and it does, but the narrator voices are distinct, characters are complex, the family dynamics are gripping, the heartaches are real. This is a church-going family, but the author goes forward without platitudes or heavy-handedness.
Join me for an interview with author Susie Finkbeiner.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?
Susie: A handful of years ago, while researching for my novel All Manner of Things, I stumbled across an article about Operation Babylift — when over 3,000 Vietnamese children were airlifted out of Saigon at the end of United States’ involvement in that conflict. I printed the article and put it in my “Future Book Ideas” folder, knowing that there was a story there.
What personal connection do you have to adoption? Have any family members or close friends adopted? Internationally?
Susie: I’ve been fortunate enough to have many people in my life who have had their lives transformed by an adoption. I have close friends who have adopted, were adopted, are in the process of an adoption, both domestic and internationally.
What made you decide to tell the story from three points of view and in three different decades? Was this your plan from the beginning, or did it evolve?
Susie: The plan at the beginning was to tell the story from Linda’s perspective in 1975. But as the story grew, I realized that I wanted to represent the lifelong nature of adoption.
Why did you choose to not tell the story from Mindy’s point of view?
Susie: Around the time I started writing The Nature of Small Birds, I read a book called Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. In it the author talked about authors “writing alongside” those of other cultures, but not assuming to speak for them.
In doing so, we better honor those who have had different cultural experiences than we have. I made an effort to have Bruce, Linda, and Sonny tell the story alongside Minh/Mindy.
How did you arrive at the “small birds” metaphor in the title? Did that occur early in your writing process or later on?
Susie: I knew from the beginning of the novel that I’d weave in birds as a metaphor. For one, I’m a bit of a wild bird enthusiast. For another, it seemed fitting to write a book about letting go that called attention to fledging birds.
What kind of research was involved?
Susie: One of the great things about writing Twentieth Century fiction is the easy access to research resources. I was able to watch documentaries such as The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and Daughter of Da Nang.
I also took advantage of the many books and newspaper articles written about Operation Babylift. Additionally, I was able to talk to a few friends who have adopted internationally to gain some insight into their experiences.
Susie on Writing
Do you have a favorite book of the ones you’ve written? Which one and why?
Susie: This is always a tricky question for me to answer. I have a deep affection for each of my books for different reasons. Paint Chips is the book that taught me to be a novelist. My Mother’s Chamomile helped me heal from a profound loss. All of the Pearl Spence Books (starting with A Cup of Dust) gave me one of the dearest characters I’ve ever written. All Manner of Things stretched my writing style and gave me such joy in the writing. Stories That Bind Us challenged me, made me confront my deepest fear and wounding. The Nature of Small Birds was a complete outpouring of my heart.
They’re all my favorite. I honestly can’t pick.
What are a few of your favorite books by other authors, particularly ones that have influenced you as a writer? After which novels (if any) have you said, “I wish I’d written that?”
Susie: I remember the first time I read John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath). I thought, “I want to write like this guy.” I think he was my first major influence as a writer. Of course, it would be nearly two decades before I’d even attempt to write a novel.
Currently I find my influence in writers like Gary Schmidt and Maggie O’Farrell. When I read O’Farrell’s Hamnet I wondered if I should just retire from writing novels. That one was so beautifully written.
I’m a Gary D. Schmidt fan, too. Are you an outliner or a pantser? (For readers who don’t know, a pantser is a writer who usually abhors outlines and writes a story “by the seat of her pants.) Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Susie: I guess I’m a bit of a hybrid. When I start writing I have a loose idea of what’s going to happen and keep an eye on historic events that would be significant to my characters. But I allow a lot of breathing room for the book to come along organically as I’m typing away. I’ve learned that, for me, having too rigid a hold on my characters only makes for a difficult writing experience.
It typically takes me about a year from start to finish of a draft I feel okay sending to my editor. I prefer more time if I can have it so that the story has time to develop and grow.
You’ve written both contemporary and historical. Do you have a preference? Why or why not?
Susie: My preference is historical (although my mom is grumpy that the 60s is considered history now). There’s just something exciting about diving into history and learning about people who lived in a time I haven’t. I specifically like writing in the Twentieth Century.
I can understand your mom’s grumpiness. I was a child in the 1960s–no way can that be history! What’s the most important advice you like sharing with aspiring writers, particularly novelists?
Susie: Read. Read in your genre, outside your genre, in genres that are far beyond your comfort zone. Books are the best instructor for learning how to write. Take note of what you like, what you don’t like, what catches your eye. Listen to audiobooks to tune your ear to the rhythm of narrative. Read books aloud to yourself to get the feel of the pace. Then read a little more.
Susie Finkbeiner Bio
Susie Finkbeiner serves on the Fiction Readers Summit planning committee, volunteers her time at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and speaks at retreats and women’s events across the country. Susie and her husband have three children and live in West Michigan. Check out her other books on her website. Find her at Facebook, Instagram, and BookBub.
Join me next time as we explore another book by Susie.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read The Nature of Small Birds? How have you or someone you know been impacted by adoption?