|Since the comet struck, nothing has been the same in what was once Maine, USA. The people live in nameless numbered villages, forbidden to travel outside where the dangerous mutant birmbas live; their lives are locked to the towns. Only armed guards may travel freely from village to village, accompanied by “choppers” to hack the way through the forest. Food has been scarce since the comet’s crash created poisonous mutant species which overran the landscape, and the storehouses are managed by the Rulers. All mutations are now looked upon as abominations, and any human children with such congenital “defects” are sent at birth to the Institute.Leora is a young girl who has been permitted to remain in her village in spite of an obvious mutation, due to her now dead father’s intervention. She lives a pathetic existence in the house of her stepmother, who has remarried to the town mayor, and whose joint offspring is a nasty little girl named Tanette. When Tanette’s cousin Wilfert, a guardsman, captures a baby birmba and imprisons it in the basement, Leora learns that there is more gift than tragedy in her mutant hand. After she sneaks the birmba back outside to his family, her own escape experience and her mutation provide the catalysts that bring the people of Maynor towards freedom.
While the evident themes of The Hermit Thrush Sings are about freedom, slavery, and calculated misrepresentation, the entire plot and setting revolves around the human interaction with land. Without direct experience of the outside, the villagers are chained even more by indoctrinated fears than by the guards; they cannot successfully rebel until they find out that the birmbas are no danger to them, that the mutant species can feed them, that they can survive outside without the intervention of the Rulers and the guards. The psyche of the villagers is as constrained as the walls of their town; lacking evidence from their own senses, their minds are limited to the dull realities imposed by the Rulers and their proscriptions. The villagers need the land, they need a real relationship with the land, in order for their lives to have meaning. Leora’s mutant, magical hand shows them the way.
Susan Butler has written a thought-provoking first novel, enjoyable by children and adults alike. Her imagery is vivid and alive, her characters are sweetly drawn and engaging, her world-building skills are well developed. Her keen interpretive lens immerses her readers in a richly colored world that holds form long after the last page is closed.