“The Pinioned Birds,” by Janet Trask Cox. Self-published. Paperback, 302 pages. $12.99
Janet Trask Cox’s self-published debut novel “The Pinioned Birds” is a beautiful depiction of life in Montana during the early 20th century. However, a few technical issues keep it from soaring to lofty heights - just like the titular birds.
Even though “The Pinioned Birds” is fiction, it is based on the life of Cox’s parents. The story takes place from 1929-1940 and tells the story of the Matthews family, who own a sheep ranch near Ballantine. Oldest son Will Matthews returns to his childhood home with his new fiancée in the hopes that he will return to work with the Matthews Sheep Co. after serving in World War I.
But when he returns, he finds that his family’s attitude toward him has changed dramatically. He also discovers that his father and younger brother Dixon are taking part in some potentially illegal activities in order to expand the boundaries of the ranch.
There was a lot to like about “The Pinioned Birds,” but perhaps its strongest asset was the engaging setting. As a longtime Billings resident, I was intrigued to learn what Billings and Ballantine were like in the early 20th century. Billings landmarks such as the Northern Hotel and the Babcock Theater were featured prominently and lent a sense of authenticity to the story.
As a history buff, I also appreciated how Cox wove significant historical events such as the two world wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression into the story. Seeing how these events affected the everyday life of the Matthews family and their ranch added another interesting layer to the rich and surprisingly complex story.
Another aspect of the story that worked well was Will’s complex relationship with his father and brother. This part of the story could have easily fallen into melodrama, but the interactions felt realistic and believable.
This was due in no small part to the engaging characters that Cox created. Will was a particularly engaging protagonist as he attempted to balance his views of right and wrong with his family’s expectations.
Other characters are similarly three-dimensional. For example, Will’s ambitious brother Dixon could have easily become a stereotypical greedy villain, but Cox never lost sight of his humanity. Similarly, Will’s father R.T. was both a hero and villain during certain parts of the story and ultimately emerged as a tragic figure that the audience could sympathize with.
Another strong aspect of Cox’s tale was the relationship between the Matthews family and the Native Americans who lived on the nearby Crow reservation. What started out as a friendship between the two groups eventually turned into a predatory relationship where the Matthews clan did whatever it took to obtain the Native Americans’ land. This subplot provided a poignant reminder of what can happen when we let greed overcome the better aspects of our human nature.
Overall, “The Pinioned Birds” was an engaging novel, but occasional technical issues kept pulling me out of the story. You wouldn’t expect these issues to pop up in a story written by an author who has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, but they appeared nonetheless.
For example, Cox seemed to be especially fond of convoluted sentences. Here is the worst offender – a sentence that takes up more than 14 lines on page 46 of the book:
“So, when Clara Matthews told R.T. when he came down the staircase smelling of shaving soap in anticipation of Mrs. Lochwood’s Sunday gossip from town, and then Dixon when he came through the swinging door from the kitchen for breakfast with his father and then Jeanette later when she came from the blue house with the proper placement of the salad fork and the dessert fork in relation to the dinner fork predominant on her mind and then the Lochwoods when they drove down after church in Billings (taking the perfunctory highway route rather than loping dumb struck cross-country) and lastly the Treets fresh from the wooden steps of the Ballantine Congregational Church who came out as a matter of habit after shaking dozens of callused hands, each knew what Clara Matthews knew, but what none had been told.”
There were also occasional grammatical errors throughout the book such as this one on page 150 where Cox completely omits a word: “Will did not to stop at the big house.”
It’s a shame that these errors exist because “The Pinioned Birds” was a very good book that could have been a great book with a little tweaking. As it is, the novel provides a likably nostalgic look at the Montana of the past while dealing with issues of greed, racism and family relationships that are just as relevant now as they were in 1929.
I hope that Trask allows us back into the lives of the Matthews family in the near future – though next time, she might want to take an editor along.