Bobbie Ann Mason's wonderful novel, Feather Crowns, is set in the early 1900's in Hopewell, Kentucky. It begins with the new century prophecies of a world-ending earthquake. People are flocking to church revivals in preparation for Judgment Day, searching for signs from God.
In February 1900, Christianna "Christie" Wheeler - wife of James Wheeler and already the mother of three - delivers quintuplets, a sensational occurrence that brings short-lived fame to Hopewell and changes her life forever. During the long delivery, Christie heard the midnight train whistling as it travelled up from Memphis. The passing train is constant throughout the novel, its whistle the familiar sound Christie listens to night after night.
Because of their "unusual" family, Christie and James are instant celebrities. The train begins making daily stops in Hopewell, bringing strangers from all over the country to peer at these miracle babies. But these frequent stops quickly nose-dive into the grotesque underside of carnivals and freak shows.
Ms. Mason's attention to the microscopic detail of everyday life is riveting. Along with the authentically colorful, often humorous dialogue, there are wonderful descriptions of churning and nursing and chopping tobacco. There are also the subtle reminders of life's fragility and the uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Throughout the book, Christie frequently expresses the same thought:
"People had to make something out of the unusual. . . . It had to mean something. There's so much in the world that nobody understands."
Ms. Mason shows that it is more than possible to describe events of our lives and in Feather Crowns the life of Christie and her babies is memorable and complete.
Filled with superstition, prophecy and sorrow, this book is not a touchy-feely kind of books. The mortality rate for quints in the early 20th century is extremely low, so the saddness that occurs in the middle of the book is not shocking but it is heartbreaking. The second half of the book with filled with the cruelties and strangeness I never thought possible in a civilized culture.
Feather Crowns is at once riviting and heartwarming and is a crowning accomplisment in a long line of wonderful books by Bobbie Ann Mason. If you enjoy period pieces or historical novels - especially surrounding rural life in 1900s Kentucky - then this is a great book to add to any TBR list.