The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
It is this notion, of the past steering the present away from a true course, that drives the narrative in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, and in at least one way, it is the past that helps steer it back onto the road.
If you liked Edgar Sawtelle, the story or film of Benjamin Button, the TV show Pushing Daisies or the more imaginary tales of Alice Hoffman, you will love this book, a tale imbued with a few large dollops of magical realism. Like Edgar, Bonaventure is born somewhat different from other children. Like Edgar, he makes no sound. But while Edgar has a particular Mowgli-like talent for relating to his pooches, Bonaventure is possessed of an otherworldly sense of hearing. The medical term for one aspect of this is synaesthesia. He is able to hear color. But his gift goes far beyond the odd skills that as many as one in twenty-three humans might have. As he grows into his gift, he can hear the stories of inanimate objects. Eventually, Bonaventure is able to hear at a molecular level. He is even able to hear sounds that happened long ago.
Bonaventure never met his father, William, at least while he was alive. Before the boy’s birth, Dad was shot down on the streets of New Orleans by a madman known only as “the Wanderer.” But William hangs around, having a few tasks to complete before he can graduate from Almost Heaven, and helps his unusual son adapt to the world and complete his own mission. Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, lives with a burden of guilt originating in the day her husband was killed. Dancy’s mother, Letice, carries a heavy load of sorrow from her adolescence. It is only through Bonaventure’s gift, with the help of his father, that these decent people can move ahead with their lives. Another force is at play here as well, in the person of Trinidad PreFontaine, maker of healing potions, and well versed in the potential of most plant life. She feels the presence of Bonaventure as if they are connected by a personal, psychic tether. She has a role to play as well in seeing Bonaventure realize his potential.
It is easy for a story with a fair bit of magic in it to get caught up in the pyrotechnics (verbotechnics?) of the incredible. (See The Night Circus) But that is not a fate suffered here. We are acutely aware of the humanity of these characters, and it is their emotional life that drives the story. The Magic takes an appropriate, supportive role.
We follow the Wanderer, a physically maimed and mentally ravaged war veteran, from his constricted life in Detroit, as he sets out on a mission of unknown origin, to the point of his deed, and after that we see him occasionally in an asylum. He is very fixated on Alexandre Dumas, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. One wonders what the wrong is that he is avenging.
It is possible that there may be readers who are put off by the obvious religious perspective presented in Bonaventure’s world. Like the Blues Brothers, some characters here are most definitely on a mission from God.
Bonaventure Arrow had been chosen to bring peace. There was guilt to be dealt with, and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong. And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.
One cannot help but wonder if Trinidad PreFontaine, given her evocative name, might have some sort of baptismal relationship with BA. But take it from this atheist. It is worth the weight of Leganski’s perspective to gain the benefit of this wondrous landscape. And she does offer an image, as well, of some who would use religion for unseemly purposes.
Leganski feathers her literary nest with some lovely imagery. Sparrows flit in and out, standing in for, probably, a variety of things. Birds, as a group are a significant presence
In the middle of her sleepless night, Trinidad experienced a vision. A scavenging raven circled the room, its beady eyes questing after death. The bird spread its wings to swoop and glide, its feathers sounding like rustling silk. From the bird’s shaggy throat came a prruk-prruk call and a toc-toc click and a dry, rasping kraa-kraa cry. After the raven came a pure white dove, and after the dove, a sparrow.
Trinidad regarded circles as symbols of God’s eternal love. Her favorite circle was that which is found in the small dark eye of a sparrow.
Tristan had rescued a bird—a sparrow—and needed her [Letice’s] help. It was a life or death situation…The bird seemed no more than a wisp, nearly weightless. She believed she could feel its bones and imagined them to be made of straw, all hollowed-out and light. Letice decided the bird was a girl sparrow, a young and delicate one. The tiny creature lay on its left side, breathing very fast. Letice could feel its heart beating in sync with her own
Are sparrows the souls of these characters? Angels? Don’t know, maybe, or maybe something else entirely. Bonaventure associates another character with an eagle later in the book, keeping the bird imagery aloft. There are plenty more, but I will stop there.
There is a lovely sequence in which a few of the characters incorporate some voodoo gris gris into their experience, in a very warm, nurturing way. No black magic here, thank you very much, but maybe a bit of the sympathetic variety
Some characters seem to have maybe a bit too much of a vision, if not always an absolute road map, directing them toward their goals. Trinidad certainly has a finger on the pulse of the force. William seems to have gotten a bullet-pointed memo from the Almighty in his in-box, and Bonaventure has his father to show him the way. While this may be tactically a bit convenient, strategically it supports the emotional journey of others. Bonaventure struggles to adapt to a world that is not all that accepting of someone as different as he is, particularly in the social cacophony of school, where he tries mightily to feel normal despite his large difference. I wish that we had gotten to see more of that effort. But the boy remains a pretty nifty character on his own for someone charged with helping change others. Really, it is the women whose journey we follow most here, Dancy, Letice, and Adelaide, Dancy’s awful mother, who could easily be a member of the De Vil clan, and who adds a layer of unpleasantness to the expression going postal.
Along the way, Leganski offers a fascinating look at a time and place, New Orleans and the fictitious town of Bayou Cymbaline of the 1950s, primarily. The author, although from Wisconsin, and currently residing in Chicago, has a Southern heart. She has always been enamored of many great southern writers, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee, among others. That sensibility comes through. Despite her northern Midwest DNA, the soul of this book resides in the South. She all but strokes the landscape with her rich, languid prose. There are enough overt literary references to offer tethers to other works. Dancy is, like her creator, a huge fan of Faulkner. From a different, if no less wonderful world, C.S. Lewis gets a mention, as does Lewis Carroll.
Leganski writes with conviction about a sense of god, but not in a good versus evil way, although there is a bit of that in this tale. Here the battle is, mostly, about good versus despair, belief as a tool to help one overcome barriers and find again one’s better personal paths. Her notion of god, while clearly Christian in origin, extends the concept to a sort of areligious universality. Hers is not one of those church-bound deities, but a wondrous extra layer of existence that embraces profound beauty, kindness, forgiveness and understanding. The Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God sorts are anathema here. The story of Bonaventure Arrow takes place in a universe of love, a universe in which bad things certainly can and do happen, but in which there are forces at work trying to heal wounds and make things right. In addition to lifting up some of its characters, this is a book that will lift up its readers. Enjoy it as pure fantasy if that works for you. Embrace the religious aspect if you prefer. The characters feel real and their struggles are all too mortal. The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is most assuredly worth shouting about.
March 18, 2013 – I just came across this – lovely interview with the author. It adds a lot to one’s appreciation of the novel.
March 21, 2013 – I just learned that Bonnie made the Indie Next list for March
I stumbled on a fascinating web site pertaining to Bonaventure’s particular talent