Economy of Sparrows, The

11 August 2023

The Economy of Sparrows
by Trevor Herriot
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9781771872461

I’m considering what I enjoyed most about award-winning Regina writer, grassland conservationist, and naturalist Trevor Herriot’s first foray into fiction.

His debut novel, The Economy of Sparrows, conveys the story of pensioner Nell Rowan, a Saskatchewan-born birder and researcher who—after earning a biology degree at Carleton and working for two decades as a night janitor cleaning “the bathrooms and hallways of the National Museum of Nature’s research and collections facility”—returns to her family’s southern Saskatchewan farmstead and remains dedicated to learning everything possible about “long-dead bird collector” William Spreadborough, and the other early naturalists and collectors she read about on her work breaks. Is there some connection between Spreadborough and her own family?

This multi-layered book succeeds on every level. Firstly, the plot: Nell’s obsession with Spreadborough drives the story, but there’s also a mother who walked into winter and was never found; a teenaged foster child with a knack for communicating with animals; interesting rural neighbours; and Nell’s passion for documenting the birds in her area … her “bird survey stuff”. Nell tries to remain optimistic, but her faith in policy-makers re: reports, surveys and environmental assessments (“mostly smoke and mirrors”) feels “like messages set adrift in bottles on an ocean of apathy”. As a child she learned that “the beauty of creatures” had the ability to both “stir something in her” and “comfort”—now her dog’s “expressive face was what got her out of bed each morning”.

Herriot’s comprehensive knowledge of birds and prairie conservation is well-served. Chapters begin with a descriptive excerpt from Taverner’s Birds of Western Canada: this includes facts about various bird species, as well as the birds’ “Economic Status,” ie: the Vesper Sparrow is “One of the most beneficial of the sparrows … therefore, should receive every possible protection.”

Make no mistake, this is a highly political story, right down to “gravel operations ruining their road;” Nell’s dilemma concerning an application for Century Farm status, considering “settler privilege, broken treaties, [and] the rest of it;” climate change truths; “No trees, no shrubs, no grass, no wetlands, just the uniform green of canola;” and, especially, the critical importance of maintaining habitat for birds and insects.

Herriot’s writing skill is exemplary: “They passed a shelterbelt of trees surrounding the ruined shell of a house, weathered to a wasp-nest grey, windows like empty eye sockets.” Melancholy veritably oozes from this line.

The characterizations of Nell, fifteen-year-old Carmelita, and several secondary characters are well-wrought and credible, ie: in Nell’s pasture Carmelita sits on a “waist-high boulder spangled with orange lichen” and says: “̒I get like four bars here.’”

Certainly Herriot underscores that “Western civilization [is] at odds with nature,” but all the conservation conversations aside, this captivating story is not at all predictable. We learn much about Nell, the “aging naturalist” with “a soft spot for sparrows,” but I couldn’t have guessed what would progress—and it’s gripping.

In short, Herriot adeptly pulls together his storyline’s sticks and strings and builds one hell of a nest.


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