Ostriches! A captivating, inventive coming-of-age story (Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County, California; July presumably present-day): Cheers for the new heroine on the block. The block being a California road paralleling legendary Route 66 in the Mojave Desert leading into the Wishbone Ranch. Not your average Western ranch as this one raises ostriches for their eggs, “the size of footballs.” 142 Ostriches is as captivating as these giant feathered creatures, the tallest birds on earth.
Size of ostrich egg:
With less than a hundred ostrich farms dotting the U.S., April Dávila’s debut is most unusual. Set on forty-acres amidst the hottest and driest place in North America – favorable conditions for bigger-than-human-sized birds originally from Africa that don’t fly. How could they, weighing 300 pounds and standing 8 feet tall? Fascinating birds at the center of this thrown-into-the-fire coming-of-age story.
Ostriches, with their peculiar delights and challenges, bring a lifetime’s worth of headaches – yet over only a few days during one scorching-hot July desert summer – for twenty-four-year old Talluhah Jones who suddenly inherits an ostrich ranch she doesn’t want. What she wants is to finally determine her own destiny.
Ostriches trigger this fast-paced ride for Talluhah and us as her troubles come at her one after another. When the ride is over, you’ll wish her story makes it to the movie screen, which you can envision because Dávila’s sharp, descriptive prose puts us into cinematic scenes that ping-pong from worse to bad, bad to worse, to death-defying.
Like a good movie, 142 Ostriches starts off with a bang: “Four days before the ostriches stopped laying eggs, Grandma Helen died in an accident that wasn’t really an accident.”
That’s the kind of opening sentence that hooks a reader. From there, the pace keeps going and going. Over-the-top, packing in a lot in just 250+ pages.
That winning one-liner sets up two storylines. What’s going on with the ostriches? Why aren’t they laying any eggs? How can Talluhah manage all the birds when it takes her “eight frustrating hours to do a chore than would have taken two with Grandma Helen”? And, why does Talluhah suspect her grandmother may have taken her own life?
If it weren’t for Helen, who knows what would have happened to Talluhah. For the first thirteen years of her life, her anyway-the-wind-blows mother moved her from apartment to apartment without any explanation or heads-up, leaving her alone at night bartending and sleeping during the day. Talluhah doesn’t even know who her father is; doesn’t matter to her mother who “didn’t think twice about losing people because they were all, friends and lovers alike, entirely replaceable.” Then, one day her widowed grandmother showed up, scooped her away from the dangers of big city life in Oakland, California to give her a more stable, safer upbringing. Still a lonely one, as Grandma wasn’t the warm and cuddly type. Showed more tenderness towards her ostriches than to her granddaughter and three children.
Eleven years on the ranch hasn’t changed Talluhah’s uneasiness around the ostriches. For starters, their two toes are “tipped with pre-historic looking claws” that can kill. Yes, there’s “something sweet in their giant eyes,” larger than any other bird, but don’t think you can outsmart them with eyes “bigger than brains” as they’re also the fastest birds on earth. You may want to keep a distance from them, but Dávila makes sure you don’t.
Watching them run is comical, adding lightness to Tallulah’s plight.
Ostriches are endearing in other ways. Males (roosters) are wonderfully democratic way with their hen mates, taking turns sitting on their nests. Males (black-and-white feathers) on night duty, females (light brown) during the day. The ones with names win us over, like Abigail the most pet-like. She doesn’t follow the flock, rather follows you around and loves to play. With a noticeable limp, she’s the most relatable and sympathetic. Second is Lady Lil, flapping her enormous wings with a “graceful salute.” As for the rest, it’s all about reading their “posture and sound. Friendly curiosity manifested in lilting head bobs”; under stress “low, whooping reverberation” cries, echoing across the desert emptiness.
Loner Talluhah is not totally alone. She has a boyfriend, Devon, but he, like taking over the ranch, would pin her down, while she craves excitement and purpose. That’s why she planned to be headed soon to Minnesota for a job as a Forest Ranger. He says he loves her, but does she love him? Content with working at a cement company and lazying away his free time at Pat’s Bar, where they met. It’s the only game in the tiny town closest to the ranch, Sombra, which appears to be a fictional place, but represents all the ghost-like places out West. The closest real one is thirty-miles away in Victorville, with the San Gabriel Mountains a hundred miles west.
Talluhah doesn’t know what she wants other than independence and the great outdoors. The “perfect rhythms of nature” seem to be what’s held her together, surrounded by the “beautiful in a lonely way” desert, marveling at the “elegant wisdom of the ecosystem.”
Dávila’s nature writing is elegant too as it seeps through the chaos. Talluhah is in awe of the desert’s “spectacular” sunrise. How it reaches “across the valley and washed orange over the tops of the mountains in the west; how “the color rolled down in a lazy cascade” looking like “an undulating sea speckled with hardy plants that cast long shadows in the early morning light.” There’s a lovely ease to nature’s prose, in stark contrast to the tensions that mount and mount.
Talluhah wonders if her long-abandoned mother will show up at her own mother’s funeral. Ditto for the other wayward child, Uncle Steve, a fragile recovering methamphetamine addict, ubiquitous in the valley. Helen’s third child, Aunt Christine, resents him terribly. “Life is hard, Steve, but we deal. We don’t go running off to get high,” she says angrily. Unfortunately, he does show up.
Christine’s habits may annoy Talluhah but she can’t help admiring how mothering she is of her five young children, pregnant with another. Contending with her own issues, she’s been a good daughter to Helen, visiting and cooking often, so Talluhah is closer to her than anyone else. Given all the dysfunction in the family, it’s striking how much grace and inner strength Christine has found through her deep spirituality (but still can’t forgive her piece-of-work brother.) Given the life Talluhah has been dealt, how could she believe in anything? That’s the point: she hasn’t given up, keeps fighting.
Helen chose Talluhah as the sole beneficiary of her beloved ranch knowing something about Talluhah she doesn’t. Will she discover it before it’s too late? By the time of the funeral, she’s hastily sold the ranch to Joe Jared, itching to buy it for years. Grandma’s refusals the source of tremendous guilt, along with knowing JJ’s large scale ostrich operation isn’t engaged in humane animal practices. So much pressure, remorse, grief for a young woman to carry around, especially when she’s signed legal documents and then discovers the ostriches have stopped producing eggs!
How could so much happen to one person in such a short time? Mind you, this is a toned-down preview of the dangerous road ahead for our intrepid heroine. How do we hold on when everything goes wrong? Ask Talluhah.