Margaret Verble’s When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky (Mariner Books 2021) is one of those disappointing novels that simply does not live up to its potential. It’s a perfectly okay read, but I wanted it to be as great as a historical novel written by Verble about a Cherokee horse diver should have been. Instead, I got a big ole chaotic slog with a lot of disconnect and dead animals.
Set in Nashville in the 1920s, the novel focuses primarily on Two Feathers, the Cherokee horse diver “on loan” from a Wild West show. Two’s name is actually Nancy Benge, but that’s not going to sell tickets, so she adopted a “wild Indian” stage name. Verble’s use of names and the importance of them is something that is carried well throughout the novel, especially with Two, Crawford, and Little Elk. Crawford is one of “the Crawfords,” an affluent black family in segregated Tennessee. He is Two’s closest confidant, and they’ve bonded over the care of the animals. The zoo where Two and Crawford work was built on an Indian burial ground, and Little Elk is a ghost who was killed before reaching manhood and stuck with a childish name. He isn’t the only ghost who shows up in the pages, but he is one of the more impactful ones.
When Two suffers an injury that breaks both her body and soul, she stays on at the Glendale Park and Zoo. She does so because getting home would be a painful, bumpy endeavor. Because she was seriously injured while on the job, Mr. Shackleford seems quite agreeable to letting her stay on even though she can’t dive; they’ll find something for her to do. One of the workers, Jack, is obsessed with Two even before the accident, and as she recovers, his advances become dangerous. He is a poorly written caricature of evil; had Verble focused more on him as a character and less on packing the novel with 1920s Nashville history and distracting sidetrips and plots, the novel could have been a five-star read.
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky is a novel of race in the Prohibition-era South, but it just gets too wrapped up in itself, and it is just a little too clunky to excel.