Book Review: When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky by Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble's When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is set in 1926 Nashville and follows a death-defying young Cherokee horse-diver who, with her companions from the Glendale Park Zoo, must get to the bottom of a mystery that spans centuries.

Two Feathers is not her real name but Nancy Benge has been an entertainer for long enough that she almost prefers to go by her stage name, given how she trades on her identity as an authentic Cherokee daredevil to make a living. Performing twice daily at Nashville’s Glendale Park Zoo, where she’s on-loan from one of the last surviving Wild West shows in the nation, her signature act involves diving from a raised platform into a tank of water while on the back of her beloved mare Ocher. She misses her family and home on Oklahoma’s famed 101 Ranch but also knows that there isn’t much work for her there in her chosen field. So, alongside her closest friend and co-worker Hank Crawford, who hails from one of the wealthiest Black families in the city, she must grin and bear living in a society of white people who treat her as exotic at best and inferior at almost all other times.

It doesn’t help that Glendale Park Zoo was partially built by desecrating the graves of a long-gone Indian civilization, or that the first Tennessee settlers had deliberately misunderstood the natives’ communal use of the land and decided to seize it for themselves:

They just flatly refused to recognize they were disrupting the way the Indians fed their families just as surely as if they’d been robbing stores and warehouses in London, Liverpool, or Edinburgh. Or burning crops and stealing sheep in North Carolina, where they’d earlier killed off the residents. So, at first, they felt perplexed. Next they felt frightened. Then, terrified of being attacked. They became convinced they were encircled by barbarians of an inferior race. They called on their Lord. Read their Bible. Prayed, and prayed some more. They taught their children and dogs to kill Indians on sight. Gave thanks to Heaven for their rifles and cannons.

Two is thus understandably wary of harmful, self-centering white folks even before she starts receiving love letters from an admirer who signs with a name that’s vaguely Indian but smells to Two like a white person pretending to be of her people. Shortly thereafter a terrible accident befalls her and Ocher during a performance. The incident seems to set off a wave of other strange events, culminating in several violent, near-inexplicable deaths. Two suspects a mortal hand in the proceedings, but also wonders if something supernatural isn’t going on:

[She b]egan also to ponder the problem of witches. That problem was not new to Two. Everybody on the 101, even the white people, felt sure the ranch was haunted. Some said the ghosts were spirits of cowboys the [ranch owners] had killed for revenge or convenience. Others thought they were spirits of Indians murdered for allotments. There were all sorts of theories, but the general agreement among the tribes was that many of the ghosts, but not all, were witches. And Two had begun to feel a presence near her. Had sensed it for several days. Sometimes she thought it was helpful; sometimes she thought it might be a witch.

With the help of, among others, Crawford, the shell shocked British zookeeper Clive Lovett and the proper but not unkind boarding housemistress Helen Hampton, Two will get to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on and help stop a thrill killer while staying true to her own heritage and desire for independence.

A compelling snapshot of life in 1920s Nashville, When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky deftly explores conflicts of race and culture while chronicling the dying days of vaudeville. It brings to light a history that’s obscure to many modern readers, utilizing a wholly immersive manner that is sobering in the parallels it draws with present day issues. Margaret Verble braids not only real-life events into her fictional story, but also honors the storytelling of authors who came before her by choosing to keep their pseudonyms for some of the Nashville notables on whom their shared characters are based. This historical novel is a wonderful addition to the Tennessean and American storytelling canon, reminding readers from those areas particularly not only how we got here but also what we still owe and need to do better as we try to make our way forward as a nation.

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