“Feathers—no matter what size or shape or color—are all the same, if you think about them. They’re soft. Delicate. But the secret thing about feathers is . . . they are very strong.”
In the pre-Katrina glow of New Orleans, Amanda Salassi is anxious about chaperoning her daughter’s sixth-grade field trip to the Big Easy during Halloween. And then her worst fears come true. Her daughter’s best friend, Sarah, disappears amid the magic and revelry—gone, without a trace.
Unable to cope with her guilt, Amanda’s daughter sinks into depression. And Amanda’s husband turns destructive as he watches his family succumb to grief. Before long, Amanda’s whole world has collapsed.
Amanda knows she has to save herself before it’s too late. As she continues to search for Sarah, she embarks on a personal journey, seeking hope and purpose in the wake of so much tragedy and loss.
Set amidst the murky parishes of rural Louisiana and told through the eyes of two women who confront the darkest corners of humanity with quiet and unbreakable faith, The Feathered Bone is Julie Cantrell’s master portrait of love in a fallen world.
The guide redirects our attention to another artist, this one drawing a corset around a tiny waistline, exaggerating the voluptuous figure. The painter holds a feather and examines her work.
“What’s the feather for?” Our guide points to the brilliant blue plume in the painter’s hand.
After a heavy sigh, the woman grimaces. “Well, a long time ago women used to wear these corsets under their fancy dresses. Some people called them stays. Girls had to start wearing them when they were very young. Maybe eight years old.” She looks at Ellie. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Ellie answers, nibbling her fingernail. It’s a habit she’s trying to break.
“Twelve,” the woman confirms. “So, if you lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, you’d be wearing one of these. Your ribs and your lungs and your stomach would be all pinched up tight beneath the stays.” She tweaks her face at the though of it.
“Why?” Sarah asks. Not a speck of hesitation.
“That’s the question.” The artist smirks. “Why do you think?”
No one comes up with a guess.
“Because women were slaves.”
“It’s true!” The artist comes closer. “Slaves to fashion. To society. To culture. The men wanted women to have tiny waists, and we gave them what they wanted.”
I raise one finger, just enough to catch the artist’s attention.
“I’m still not clear. What’s the feather for?”
“Oh yes. I got sidetracked. Sorry.” Her eyes light up. “For years, the corset boning was made out of hard, rigid materials. Rods. Reeds. Whalebones. Can you imagine? Being caged into that every day? Even at night?”
Girls peak their brows. Boys shake their heads. Parents sigh.
“But in the late 1800s a man named Edward K. Warren had a store up in Michigan. Dry goods, they called it back then. His customers complained about the whalebone corsets. They were too expensive, too uncomfortable. They didn’t seem to hold up. So when Mr. Warren was buying supplies over in Chicago, he noticed a factory that made feather dusters. […] Mr. Warren noticed that the factory threw away big piles of feathers. He thought he might be able to use them to make corsets. And he was right. He patented his idea. Earned himself a fortune. People loved his new featherbone corsets. You know why?”
So she continues. “They were less expensive, for one thing, but mainly the featherbones allowed women to bend.” She bows the feather, demonstrating her claim. “So in a way, Mr. Warren helped women break free from bondage. You see?”
She looks at the group of children with a tenderness now, then toward the ceiling where birds flitter between the roof beams, serenading us. “Girls, promise me this. Every time you see a bird flying around with her beautiful feathers, I want you to think of all the women who strapped themselves into corsets against their wishes. Think of all the women who fought to break free from those restraints. And then remind yourselves to never again become slaves. In any way, to anyone. You keep yourselves free. Understand?”
I have read countless books. I breathe them in like oxygen. Some have become favourites to revisit, many more have been pleasant ways of passing the time, and more than I would like have been rather forgettable (or perhaps unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons). But very rarely do I come across a book that brands my soul as deeply as this one did. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is always the first that comes to mind, but after reading The Feathered Bone I will have another to add to the list.
This book was such a rich reading experience I do not know how I can possibly do justice to it in a review. An essay might come closer, but I’ll try to spare you! The Feathered Bone explores themes like light and darkness, freedom and captivity through the story of Sarah, a twelve year old girl who disappears while on a school excursion, and Amanda, the mother of Sarah’s best friend and one of the parents supervising the excursion. Right from the beginning of the novel, the symbolism of the feather is introduced, and its characteristics become a powerful metaphor that is explored more deeply as the story develops.
Both Amanda’s and Sarah’s stories elicited deep emotional responses from me. There were times when I did not merely have tears welling or trailing down my cheeks; I actually sobbed (albeit as quietly as possible). Like Amanda, there were times when “my chest caved deeper against my heart.” But there was also a wondrous light that shone through the darkness. It may not be the reality for many who find themselves in Amanda’s or Sarah’s position, but by the strength of God, it could be.
Sarah’s side of the story is told through journal entries that she writes so that she won’t forget who she really is, addressed to a sparrow that comes to visit at her window. The reality of her situation is alluded to very sensitively in her writing, but she also spends a lot of time recalling lessons taught to her by her parents, which keep her grounded, pondering the nature of freedom and captivity, and reminding herself of truths that are all too easy to lose sight of in her circumstances. Her voice was thoroughly authentic for a twelve year old, and yet full of simple, beautiful wisdom that often brought tears to my eyes for all the right reasons.
While Sarah struggles to hold on to the light, Amanda struggles to break through to the light. I truly felt the weight of her sorrow as she came to terms not only with the events following Sarah’s disappearance, but also the emotional legacy she carried as a result of having been adopted, and then having her adoptive father walk out of her life at a relatively young age. Both stories are testament to the power of love – human and divine – in different ways.
This was not a light read, and it touches on some unpleasant realities of our world, but I was richly rewarded for having taken the journey. Not surprisingly, this one’s gone straight to the pool room.
Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 26 January 2016
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Author’s website: http://www.juliecantrell.com/