The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes. Random House. 288 pages. $24.95.
This is one man's story about finding his way home. No, wait, it's about how birds find their way home.
Truth be told, it's both: the story of how an Englishman follows geese from their winter sanctuary in southern Texas to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and in the process discovers what Dorothy said on the silver screen more than 60 years ago - there's no place like home.
William Fiennes' first book, is an unusual breed, a part-travelogue, part-bird book that almost works to perfection.
Fiennes is a man in his mid-20s who has his underpinnings knocked askew by a serious illness. Forced to return to his parents' home to convalesce, he picks up a copy of an old school favorite, Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, which gets him thinking about the behavioral patterns of flocks.
Pretty soon, he's noticing the comings and goings of the birds around his parents' home and starts learning their names: swift, swallow, warbler, finch and woodpecker. The birds' need for safe, familiar surroundings mirrors his own.
"Nowhere was my sense of belonging so unambiguous. I could still find my way around the ironstone house in the dark, or with my eyes closed, moving by reflex, habit, muscle memory; my hands knowing just where to reach for a handle, switch or rail; my feet ready for a step up or down, a loose board, a shift from carpet to stone, I knew the names of things, their details and histories, every surface burnished with memory or association."
But as his health returns so does his itch to expand beyond the comfortable confines of his boyhood surroundings. Fiennes spreads his wings on a late winter to spring migration that takes him to places Charles Kuralt never went. There's a budget motel with the threadbare "skin-pink" curtains, a tired Greyhound bus station with the bolted-down seats, a coffin-like railroad sleeping berth.
The settings are cheesy and a striking contrast to the rich characters residing within: a tennis-playing former nun who loves to launder clothes, a retired railroad hobo who holds court in a train dining car, the stoic native hunters of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory. Each nourishes Fiennes just as the corn fields and lakes feed the geese on their northward journey.
Still, the author finds that his longings for home grow as the geese near the breeding grounds, and he becomes impatient when he must wait for the flock to catch up.
Fiennes uses the breaks to take the reader on fascinating side trips to scientific studies of migration, and how birds use cues from nature to start the process and navigate.
A few minor quibbles with this otherwise dandy story:
* Fiennes lingers too long with some of his traveling companions. The former nun who is his seat companion on the long bus ride from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis isn't nearly as interesting as Fiennes thinks she is. As a matter of fact, whether intentional or not, her incessant chatter makes her the reader's seatmate from hell.
* And his ear for "American" English is a bit off.
But The Snow Geese is a book that has you hoping Fiennes has a new case of wanderlust soon.
Candus Thomson, outdoors writer at The Sun, has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Before that, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years.