It's rare indeed when I read a bird book by a previously-published author whom I've never heard of before, but a few months ago, I was contacted by a published writer who was unknown to me, asking if I wanted to read her story about what it's like to be a woman falconer. Of course! eagerly replied this wannabe falconer. After a few postal mix-ups and delays, the book finally arrived at my door in Germany. This slim paperback, Lift (Los Angeles: Red Hen Press; 2009), is an appropriately named gem of a memoir by Rebecca O'Connor.
This lyrical tale is about the ancient art of falconry but it's also about a whole lot more than that. Beginning with the author's realization that she cannot kill the duck that her peregrine falcon has just knocked from the sky, a grisly act that requires the falconer to tear the duck's still-beating heart out of its chest barehanded, the reader watches as O'Connor bravely reaches into the very heart of her own life, examining her love for birds and her relationship with her estranged mother, the gentle guidance provided by her grandfather, the progress of her blossoming and sometimes turbulent romance set against the backdrop of her passion for falconry.
The story starts when O'Connor declares to her falconer boyfriend that she is going to purchase a captive-bred peregrine falcon -- her first. But learning how to successfully work with a bird that can soar a mile high is challenging. During their first year together, we learn that her headstrong falcon, Anakin, flies away -- more than once, which left me worriedly reading as fast as I could about the author's frantic efforts to find and recover her little bird in a vast world filled with larger and more powerful predators. As we learn in the book, this closely mirrors the author's troubled childhood world.
O'Connor's decision to mature as a falconer by training a young peregrine, the epitome of falconry, parallels her decision to work at developing an adult relationship with her formerly estranged mother -- a healing choice for both. Throughout the book, the author works with her readers like she works with her peregrine, skillfully weaving separate threads together into this powerful memoir, so when mother and daughter come to a mutual understanding, respect, and indeed, a genuine fondness for each other, it isn't at all contrived. It works. Beautifully.
Even though O'Connor is telling a true story, her relationship with Anakin also serves as an allegory for her own life. Interspersed throughout the narrative are flashbacks to the author's dark and difficult childhood; her abandonment by her parents and other important life events. But these are more than mere flashbacks: a careful reading reveals these scenes are important, providing an intense emotional undercurrent to the main storyline. These flashbacks illuminate the reasons for O'Connor's sometimes confusing life choices made during her first year with Anakin.
Despite her honesty, I was disappointed that the author's personal relationship with her falcon remains a closed book, except for what was my favorite scene in the book -- when O'Connor and Anakin got into an argument after a failed attempt to hunt ducks:
I screamed at [Anakin] to get back into the air, gesticulating my desires with waving arms and skyward jazz hands.
The falcon didn't give me the response I wanted. Instead, he bowed his head, raised his tail and began to scream back in the shrill tongue of peregrine, both our voices escalating. We could have been a couple arguing over who was doing the better job of shirking their responsibilities, if only we had been speaking the same language. [p. 146]
We also learn a little about falcon training techniques, such as swinging a meat-baited lure on a slender rope as an enticement to a free flying falcon to return to the falconer. Indeed, I could almost imagine myself as a hungry peregrine, chasing the author's plot suspended by an almost invisible storyline, coming closer each time before it spun away again, until I finally pounced on my prize. As a reader, I also see how training Anakin provides O'Connor with a deeper respect for relationships, patience, forgiveness, trust, teamwork, and love, as she works through her inner demons.
Lift is a surprisingly fast and absorbing read that is a superb airplane or subway book, or even a great bedside book -- although I would not recommend starting to read this book on a worknight because you will not put it down until you've finished it! (I read it in one sitting -- yes, in the middle of the night). This book soars as a memoir, interweaving the author's battle to rise above her personal struggles and challenges with an engaging narrative of flying a falcon. Anyone who loves birds, falconry or hunting, who enjoys strong nature writing by female authors like Barbara Kingsolver, or who likes reading about great obstacles overcome and lives lived well will find much to value in this engaging and intelligent book.
Rebecca O'Connor is a falconer in the morning, an animal trainer by day, and a writer by night. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside with a nonfiction emphasis, and Lift was her thesis. Excerpts from this book have been published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Review, divide and Narrative. She has published books on a wide variety of topics, including pet care/training books; A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion and Finches; a romance, Falcon's Return, and a philosophical book, Is there Life after Death? Rebecca also writes a personal blog, Operation Delta Duck.
Thank you, Rebecca, for sending this book to me in Germany.