Joyce Hinnefeld

"In Hovering Flight"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann APR 7, 2009)

In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld

The prose of Joyce Hinnefeld’s elegant debut novel sings the way the wood thrush does: with haunting trills and pauses. Addie Sturmer Kavanaugh has just passed away in her friend Cora’s house on the New Jersey Shore after refusing treatment for breast cancer, and her last days have brought together her poet daughter Scarlet (named after the scarlet tanager), her ornithologist husband Tom Kavanaugh, long-time friend Lou, and, of course, Cora. Told through Addie’s field journals and multiple points-of-view narratives, the book pieces together Addie’s evolution from college student to bird lover to artist to mother to environmental activist. But Addie’s is not the only drama: Scarlet, who has arrived at her mother’s deathbed with her own news, and Tom, who has never stopped loving Addie despite her single-minded quest to rid the world of chemicals and habitat encroachment, find themselves wrestling with Addie’s not-so-surprising but unconventional final wish for the disposal of her body.

Set in Pennsylvania (Hinnefeld is a professor at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA), the novel evokes the woods, ridges, and, most centrally, the bird activity in the eastern part of the state. From tiny ruby-crowned kinglets to great blue herons, birds flit in and out of the narrative. College student Addie seduces professor Tom through her class field journals, and their mutual attraction is cemented through their private birding forays in the woods surrounding tiny, fictional Burnham College. Although Tom remains loyal to ornithology, Addie’s artistic talents lead her to illustrate birds, in the tradition of Audubon and Behrend, and later, to stuff crows, gulls, and other birds in the sculpture-like protest art that eventually makes her famous. Even Scarlet, as the heir to her parents’ birding histories, uses birds as metaphors for damaged lives.

Addie’s presence and absence form the core of this novel, but, as her friend Lou says, “Do you know why I think it’s really tragic, the way we laughed and joked and acted like nothing was wrong these last few days? It’s this feeling I have now, that I’d known Addie for over thirty years by the time I sat with her last night, and now today, the day after she died, I feel like I know no more about her––about who she really was, what really went on inside that beautiful, stubborn, maddening head, than I did when we were twenty!” While Hinnefeld does indeed portray the complexity of Addie’s personality, Addie remains somewhat unknowable, with her dark outrage and self-involvement, aspects of her character that often bewilder those closest to her.

Hinnefeld’s narrative voice can be best described as elegant, with a rhythm that carries along the story with surety and wisdom. From the opening sentence—“According to John James Audubon, there was once a species of bird in southeastern Pennsylvania, the Cuvier’s kinglet, Regulus cuvieri, or, as Audubon liked to call it, Cuvier’s wren,” the prose never struggles in this tale of a family both united and torn apart by their mutual love of birds, words, and art, and of the woman central to it all.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from In Hovering Flight at the Washington Post



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About the Author:

Joyce HinnefeldJoyce Hinnefeld was born in southern Indiana. She graduated from Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana in 1984, and attended graduate school at Northwestern University and at the State University of New York at Albany. She has lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and upstate New York, and Pennsylvania.

She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in a number of print and online journals, and her book of short stories, Tell Me Everything (University Press of New England, 1998)—called “a beautiful and wise collection, with no wasted words” by judge Joanna Scott—received the 1997 Bread Loaf Writers Conference Bakeless Prize in Fiction.

She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in a restored 18th-century farmhouse, with her husband Jim, daughter Anna. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at Moravian College.

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