A week or so ago my iPhone beeped and buzzed, and the caller was Alaina Smith, staff assistant at Westminster Presbyterian Church where usually you’d find Annette and me Sunday mornings. Alaina told me that a woman had just stopped by her office, carrying a book, The Plover by Bryan Doyle, and reporting she had found it on MAX and identified it by the Westminster library stamps. I’d borrowed that book; my name was on a folded sheet of paper in the book. I was totally surprised. I’d not discovered the book missing.
A few Sundays earlier during coffee hour, Judy Harrison, our thoughtful and helpful librarian, had brought The Plover to me, knowing I had loved Doyle’s, Chicago. I took the book eagerly and was soon into it, charmed as before by Doyle’s writing—although unlike Chicago, in which he wrote about places familiar to me, The Plover took me really, delightfully, into unknown waters. Mostly, I read the book during waits and rides on a bus or MAX, which provide me the least interrupted opportunities for reading—and for losing!—the book. I had been on MAX twice on days just before it was returned to the church and can only imagine what had happened. On one of those days I leave home very early to participate in a Bible study far west in Hillsboro and sometimes, quite often in fact, riding back home on MAX, I nod off and drop the book I’m reading—or maybe I simply left the book on the train in too-ordinary forgetting. Whatever, I’m intensely thankful to the kind, unidentified person who went far beyond duty’s call to return the book—and that I’d not be spending $17.00 at Powell’s to replace it—-and to Judy Harrison, who again carried the book to me during coffee hour, although I would not have been surprised had she decided my sloppiness was good reason to protect books from me.
At any rate, I now have the book and am about three-fourths through its pages, where long-growing mystery is intensifying—but now I must issue a spoiler alert. If you want to come to this book fresh and without the speculations and predilections of someone else trying to deduce its meanings, then please stop reading right here and now. For the life of me, I’d not willingly violate anyone’s spontaneous discovery of the beauty of the book nor steer someone into peculiar theological/ philosophical currents. On the other hand, I’d surely like to hear from you after you’ve gotten into the book so that we could compare discoveries we’ve made, as well as share the sheer pleasure the book has provided us.
So perhaps now I’ve lost most readers who have ventured thus far, and what I’m writing from here on may be only for my own gratification. Well, so be it, but here goes:
Bryan Doyle was—he died a little more than a year ago from ravages of a brain tumor—from all that I have discerned, a faithful, consistent Catholic Christian through his too-short life, so it should be a good idea to look for Christian themes and unsurprising to find them in his stories. This is only the second book of his books I’ve read. The first, Chicago, despite exquisite beauty in characterizations and relationships and abundant goodness to report, did not overtly project uniquely Christian motifs to me. Not so The Plover, which to my thinking, bears such themes and symbols inherently.
Declan O’Donnel sets out from Oregon in his tiny, retrofitted fishing boat, The Plover, painted green with a red sail, aimed at far shores of the Pacific Ocean. He is alone, purposely, intending a solitary journey. There is escape in his purpose, away from family and occupations and preoccupations, but early in his voyage, he is joined by a gull, who when it is not standing on the boat’s cabin hovers exactly nine feet above its stern day after day. The gull becomes a companion, and when a few days later a horrendous storm harries the boat and everything on it to the brink of extinction, the gull disappears, and Declan is morose.
One need not be around a Christian church for long to know that such a bird bears large meaning, usually portrayed as a dove but for Doyle, a gull serves as well, and the symbolism of persistent spiritual presence is consistent. A boat is itself highly symbolic and prominent in the Christian story, the church bearing that characterization, the principal section of a church building called the nave. So—am I reading too much into the story?—Doyle is writing about life as such a voyage into incomparable beauty and complexity and dispiriting dangers, and although one may think they desire aloneness, persistent presence of Spirit hovers nearby. I am not alone.
The gull is gone for a days and days, but then, mysteriously, is there again, hovering above the tossing boat, and by then the boat has two more passengers, a father and daughter; the community has grown and Declan, at first resistant, finds strong friendship, even love. There, the description is pure and lovely as Declan talks to Pip, the daughter, who because of a tragic accident cannot herself speak:
I know you can hear me, Pip. You stay with the boat and we will get somewhere. I didn’t expect a crew and I didn’t want a crew but now we are a crew and that’s good. Maybe I was wrong to not want a crew. There. I said it. Don’t go blabbing that to everyone. Keep it to yourself. A good crew keeps its own counsel. . . . You know more about everything than I do, that’s for sure. I see you smiling, Pip. I see you in there. (pages 76-77)
As ever, Doyle represents these new friends, and others who later join by accident or intention—theirs, not Declan’s—with glittering intensity, and here again, as in Chicago, characters come to startling, stunning life. Doyle has the striking talent of being able to translate squawking shrieks of a gull into vivid and deeply discerning language. When Declan decides it is necessary to land The Plover at a small island, the gull, that hovering spiritual presence, is adamantly opposed. The island is dangerous, the gull says; gulls do not land there. Declan persists, and a hovering cloud of mystery grows, and that is where I am in my reading now.
Throughout the book, another ship, Tanets, has been lurking in the shadows, an unmapped force in the story. That boat is clearly a source of evil, dark and rusty, its captain wearing a mantle of malevolence like an ordained bearer of all that is bad news. Eventually three who have been crew under that captain escape and come to live on The Plover, which arouses that captain’s fury and haunting effort to locate The Plover somewhere in the broad reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
Here again a theme emerges out of Christian thought, that the nemesis of all that is good exists as well and persists desperately. The gull: the presence of what is holy and good. Tanets and its captain, Enrique, lurking in evil-filled darkness. And that is the point where I am, some 80 pages from the last, wondering but, maybe strangely, with hope that what wins at last is good, and the gull will still be there hovering nine feet above the stern. We’ll see.
Now you out there who read The Plover please come back; let’s talk. It’s worth a few words, don’t you think? But don’t take too much time. This voyage doesn’t last forever!