Layne Maheu’s debut novel, Song of the Crow, retells the story of Noah and the flood from the point of view of a crow. The novel begins with the main character, I Am, still in the nest with his brother, My Other. Their life is a happy one, replete with “the broth of freshly dead things in [their mother’s] beak”, but it is soon disturbed by the “beastman,” Keeyaw, the name the crows give Noah. Noah/Keeyaw chops down their tree, and as I Am learns to fly, he continues to attend to this strange man who is visited frequently by God. It is a simple conceit, but a highly readable one. The chapters that imagine life on the ark from the stowaway crow’s perspective are vivid enough to make one a little queasy.
Maheu has commented that he can see hundreds of crows “commuting” in the air above his house most mornings, and his reading in convergent evolution lead him to speculate about the socially-intelligent behavior these birds display. This observation and research pays off in Song with careful attention to three kinds of behavior: grooming and feeding, flight, and especially songs. For example, after I Am’s first flight, his mother gives him a treat: “Here. In celebration,” she said. “Your first meal as a crow.” I pecked at the catfish brains, all mealy-good with rot” (Maheu’s italics). This is I Am’s “first meal as a crow” because the “only way to become a true crow was to fly”. I’m not sure I want to think too closely about “mealy-good with rot,” except to say that it may well be less disgusting than I Am’s rhapsodic joy over the way his first self-caught bugs “explod[e] in [his] mouth”.
The most interesting aspect of the crow culture is the “songscape.” On the one hand, crows are not known as excellent singers (which Maheu has admitted). On the other hand, their calls and squawks are obviously communicative, and they are strikingly good mimics. Maheu imagines crows using “the ancient art of imitation” as a kind of perpetual keeping-alive of the past. I Am’s mother, Our Mother of Many, is valued because her song contains within it shreds of so many prior generations of crows: “She cawed inwardly, lunging with muscles of grieving gut, as if regurgitating her song, as if feeding and singing were one and the same … Since crows can count up to seven, any bird beyond that in age is from the seasons beyond counting … She could remember the many who had flown from her nest. She just couldn’t tell how long ago they had come, or gone, or if they had gone, or where to”. This passage nicely shows the strengths and limits of Maheu’s approach: Anything I Am can describe is intensely realized; however, the narrative has to be set in his present. There’s not a way in conventional English syntax to represent Our Mother of Many’s consciousness during her regurgitated song. Song of the Crow‘s world-building is impressive: More often than not, one is inclined to accept I Am’s ability to translate crow experience.
I Am is able to understand Keeyaw/Noah to some extent because he has been marked out as a bird of misfortune, one who is able to see God and to experience visions. In the presence of God, I Am can understand Keeyaw/Noah’s speech. As a result, he’s fascinated by the man with “suspicious, unseeing orbs … occasionally turned to the sky as though he were about to be scolded and were constantly being watched — how could eyes sunk so far back in his skill ever see a thing”. If Keeyaw/Noah’s physiology is puzzling, what’s noteworthy above all is “his insatiable sorrow, distorted and grotesque”, which even in moments of triumph “made sounds of strange moaning rapture”. A hidden advantage of writing from a bird’s point of view, rather than any other animal on the ark, is I Am’s constant awareness of the trees that comprise it:
This landmass of trees was awaiting some otherness too large to comprehend that involved chaos and terror and motion. The limitless hulk of it was doomed and unfit for this world and waited there out of time, and out of place, saddened by the burden of itself.
Although the crow lacks any understanding of Keeyaw/Noah’s sense of what’s happening — that is, I Am knows that Keeyaw is motivated by God, but the bird obviously has no larger sense of Genesis’s plot — he is nevertheless able to telescope here all the central problems of the flood.
Reviewers of Song of the Crow have frequently compared it to Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972), the beloved children’s story about a group of rabbits. Adams’s and Maheu’s novels tell their stories from a hybrid stance — lending the animals speech and culture in forms modeled on human, but with distinctive features extrapolated from scientific or mythological inquiry into the animal’s history. Both novels feature groups of animals displaced by human activity: The motivating crisis in Watership Down is a new housing development; meanwhile, I Am and the rest of the crows are displaced by Noah/Keeyaw’s driving need to build a ship. It won’t do, though, to overemphasize the similarity between these books: Unlike Watership Down, which largely bears on humanity in an allegorical way, Song of the Crow spends a considerable amount of time on interspecies speculations. Noah/Keeyaw is an object of prime interest to I Am, and the varying ways God appears to the human, to the crow, and to other animals at first bewilders the crow.
That insight — that God appears in a form appropriate to the perceiver–is more or less the extent of the religious teaching in Song of the Crow. The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data gives “Religious Fiction” as one of the categories for the novel, but that’s not quite right. Maheu has chosen a biblical tale, obviously, but what he’s really written is an homage to a species that’s mysteriously allied with our own. As a result, Song of the Crow is, at bottom, a novel interested in expanding our interest in the world. At the end of the novel, I Am connects his own experience with that of all crows: “It is true … I Am only a crow, a crow you might hear awwk! Just the eiyyaawwck! of a crow, any day outside your window”. This is an image straight out of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the “voice I hear this passing night was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown.” If there’s an especially “religious” message in Song of the Crow it lies in this Romantic vision of nature. What makes the novel appealing, though, is less the novel’s dogma than its ability to conjure a world orientated around song, flight, and roosts, and its “strange pity” for human and crow alike.