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Crash turns inn into ground zero for grief

Tragedy and survival unite characters at a Canadian B and B

The first chapter of Brad Kessler's new novel, 'Birds in Fall,' introduces us to two characters minutes before their deaths.

It is a tense, anguished beginning and a brave one. While many authors would have been tempted to leave these details until the end of the book, Kessler leads with them. This way the reader, like his other characters, becomes invested in a story of love, loss and the necessity of moving forward after tragedy.

As the book continues, night has fallen off the coast of Nova Scotia and Kevin Gearns witnesses the crash of a jet airliner. Within hours, Kevin and his partner, Douglas, will be plunged into the aftermath of a major disaster. As the owners of a bed and breakfast inn on Trachis Island, they open their dwelling to several family members who gather in hopes that their loved ones survived the impact.

One of the arrivals is Ana Gathreaux, whose husband, Russell, was on the plane. Ana is an ornithologist whose life with Russell was a joyous combination of shared interests and a deep love affair. As she slowly accepts the fact that Russell is gone, Ana continues to cling to an obsessive hope of finding something, anything that belonged to him.

Other relatives include a Taiwanese couple who lost their daughter and lament in ways that are strange and discomfiting. A sullen Dutch teenager and her brother drift apart while mourning their parents. And Pars Mansoor, an Iranian immigrant is in the odd position of grieving alone for a lost niece, one he hasn't seen in more than a decade.

As Kevin does his best to attend to the families' day-to-day needs, a nervous Red Cross official shuttles them from inn to crash site and, eventually, to a naval yard hangar where debris from the wreckage is displayed for their eyes only. 'The hangar was hushed, sepulchral, yet the tables looked disturbingly familiar, like those at a church tag sale, or a down-at-the-heels department store. Women's purses sat side by side, handbags with leather straps, rhinestones, a Coach bag, a Gucci.'

Several characters are drawn together in their grief, some for a short period of time and others for what may be a lifetime. In many ways, this book resembles Ann Patchett's magnificent 'Bel Canto.' Both stories bring together a group of strangers under highly emotional, stressful conditions. Both are peopled with rich personalities and engrossing language.

Kessler's ability to probe the minds of the mourners is uncanny. There is no sense of falseness or pandering. At the same time, he shows us how life continues to move along with very little consideration for what has occurred. The survivors are left to steady themselves whether they want to or not.

Each of them grieves in his or her way. Even Kevin the innkeeper finds that the crash has robbed him of the joy he once felt whenever he sought comfort in his beloved garden. 'Years afterward, Kevin wished he'd gone somewhere else … anywhere but inside the garden. For whenever he opened the gate in autumn again, whenever he caught the scent of ripe sale hay or dill … he'd remember what he saw that night, two, three miles offshore: the bottom of a fuselage lit up a ghastly red glow, enormous, groaning.'

Like Kevin, the reader most likely will be unable to forget what Kessler has created. His beautiful story is a subtle yet evocative look at how grief transforms us and lingers inside us forever.

Also reading in Portland

Portland author Scott Nadelson has published his second collection of short stories. 'The Cantor's Daughter' explores the bonds and tensions between family and friends. Nadelson will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 28, at Annie Bloom's Bookstore (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053).

Monica Ali follows up her award-winning 'Brick Lane' with a novel centered on a village in Portugal. In 'Alentejo Blue,' tourists and villagers experience friendship and conflict as old ways meet new. Ali will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 28, at Powell's on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651).