Scarlet Kavanaugh has come home because her mother, Addie, a famous bird artist is dying. Actually, she hasn't gone home to Pennsylvania, she's gone to Addie's best friend Cora's house in New Jersey since that is where Addie has chosen to die, unwilling to be surrounded by so many haunting memories as she passes on. As Scarlet, named for the scarlet tanager, faces the loss of her mother, she will come to understand Addie better than she ever has before and will mourn the extinguishing of the unique fire that was Addie Sturmer Kavanaugh, artist, environmentalist, activist. She will also have to come to a decision about whether to honor Addie's final wish to be buried illegally on a ridge where she claims to have seen a bird only ever seen before by John James Audubon.
Although opening with the end of Addie's life, the novel looks backwards, telling the tale of Addie and Tom's love and marriage, of Addie's long friendships with college friends Cora and Lou, of her increasingly political art and environmental activism, and of her distracted mothering of Scarlet. Tom Kavanaugh is an ornithologist and professor at a small school in rural Pennsylvania whose classes are wildly popular. When Addie and her friends sign up for his class, he is as immediately captured by Addie as she is by him. They spend time in the field together, looking for and naming birds, as their relationship with each other grows and takes flight. They start their life together wrapped in the beauty of the natural world, collaborating on Tom's classic book: he wrote and she illustrated.
As Addie's art evolves over time beyond the bounds of book pages so too do her political opinions evolve, leading her deep into environmental activism in hopes of saving the habitat around the college and her home. As she becomes more engaged in the fight for a better world starting in her own backyard, she becomes more distant as a mother and a wife. And this strained distance is what Scarlet remembers most from her childhood relationship with her mother, the sense that there was something bigger and more important than their mother/daughter bond. Addie lived a complex life filled with great passions and her husband and best friends do their best to share all they can with Scarlet about the amazing and driven woman that was her mother so that she will carry that knowledge into the future and in her own life.
The writing here is gorgeous and subtle with the weaving of the natural world and birds throughout the narrative of Addie's life. There's meaning and wonder packed into the ephemeral here and the idea that the attempt, even if defeated, is the first step to something better and greater. The deep and abiding love between Addie and Tom is beautifully rendered as is the long and important friendship between Addie, Cora, and Lou. The inclusion of Addie's field journals allow Hinnefeld to seamlessly incorporate Addie's point of view and motivations. This is a phenomenal and compassionate look at the dynamics of relationship, both between people themselves and between people and the creatures with whom we share our world. It addresses responsibility and stewardship and reminds us all to take the time to look at our loved ones and the spaces around us and to appreciate them. For all of time is brief but if we are lucky, our touch extends beyond us.