Fiction - Social Issues
593 Pages
Reviewed on 02/17/2014
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Author Biography

One lovely spring day when Virginia left for elementary school, the overgrown farm with the big white farmhouse (with pillars!) and the old white oak trees (maybe 300 years old or more) lining the dirt road by their new house was there. By the time she got home from school, it wasn’t. She was eight years old. Popping off the bus at the end of the school day, the little pod of kids she was part of stood on the new sidewalk in stunned silence as yellow monsters moved back and forth across the horizon, the once fertile soil blowing up into the sky like a nuclear bomb; the grand old oak trees piled up like garbage. Later that winter, hiking through the apple orchard, ice skates dangling over her shoulders, she would reach her beloved pond only to find it bulldozed out of existence–a sign for a new hotel on top of it (the frogs she’d try to catch each summer–flattened).

It was at age eight she became an “environmentalist”, before the word even existed. This was before there were “environmental laws” and “Environmental Impact Statements”. Virginia saw this world before America developed some understanding of what it was doing to itself, and has spent her career implementing many of these regulations–regulations that were the result of exactly the scene she observed when she was eight years old.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Rich Follett for Readers' Favorite

Birdbrain by Virginia Arthur is a sweeping semi-autobiographical chronicle (the author states in the foreword that many of the book’s events actually happened) of the life of a birder biologist/conservationist whose journey takes her to some of America’s most biologically diverse and unspoiled places. Protagonist Ellowyn Fischer’s odyssey from a failed marriage to lifetime tenure as an esteemed professor emeritus (spanning nearly sixty years) is recounted in an expansive narrative with vistas as wide and awe-inspiring as the panoramas in which they take place: the Mohave Desert; the sage scrub chaparral of Southern California; the Medicine Bow Mountains of Wyoming; Montana’s legendary Big Sky, and a host of other wilderness treasures all figure prominently.

Ellowyn - Ellie - who discovers her first group of ‘birdbrains’ by accident when she shows up on the wrong date for what she thinks will be a church picnic, finds a lifelong passion for all of nature’s denizens and connects with the land on a spiritual level the likes of which most of us can only imagine. Through her passion for birds and other living things, Ellie explores, advocates for, and sometimes succeeds in conserving vital fragments of a vanishing wilderness. Her indomitable spirit conjures awareness and action from everyone she meets and her legacy contains a powerful message: the act of destruction is infinitely easier than the act of creation and we who inhabit the Earth must tread gently if we are to continue the life full of abundance we too often take for granted.

Virginia Arthur writes with a warm, wry humor that easily propels the reader through nearly 600 pages of Ellie’s experiences. Included in the mix are education, romance, supernatural encounters, villains, and heroes and no small amount of wisdom. Birdbrain truly has something to inspire everyone - it is a gritty but tenderhearted paean to the idea that one person with enough conviction and determination can truly make a difference and change our world for the better.


Okay, I admit it: I am a nature nut. An enviro. A person who gets pissed off when yet another house gets built in some suburb. I mourn the loss of habitat to the extent of being nearly pathological. I love Ed Abbey. I'm with him when he said "the ideology of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell".

And so it isn't often I read a novel that understands such themes. Virginia Arthur takes her time with the book. She sets up the characters and let's them be what they are. She doesn't shy away from themes of class. And I think the cover of the book, with the beautiful Ellie, looking into the future with a couple of bulldozers around her and a binoculars at her feet, well, that cover is perfect.

In this case, you can judge a book by its cover.

Some might say the thing is a bit long and wordy. That the author could cut something here or there. No. Our lives are long and fun and tragic and good and bad and sometimes tedious and sometimes disastrous and sometimes magical. This book understand that and so it takes its time as Ellie leaves her husband for the love of birds.

And I come away from the book, borrowing a line from it often: to be an environmentalist is to live constantly with a broken heart. Oh so true.

I'm told that this work took 13 years to write and is loosely based on the author's own experiences. It takes a whole lot of effort to create such a story that includes themes of environmental loss, yet inspires hope that maybe, just maybe, others will get the bug of watching birds, or whales or trees---and figure out that they are worth saving.

Books that inspire you to become active outdoors are few and far between. Most nature books are written with adrenaline in mind. They are about climbing Everest or doing the seven highest peaks or climbing the highest tree. Or climbing a rock. Having an adrenaline experience is what the outdoors has become to a generation that comes after generation X. The slopes of a mountain have given way to the artificialness, and adrenaline, of a snowboarders half tube. This book isn't about adrenaline. It is about enjoyment. Solitude. Love.

We need more novels like this. We need to encourage writers who write books like this. A wilderness experience has become so rare that it rarely becomes a setting or subject of a novel these days (except to spur adrenaline). Virginia inspires something else; she inspires action. Beauty. Reflection. Listening. Watching. Being observant. In a world where the Pacific Crest Trail is only mentioned in regards to speed records, Birdbrain presents something better: take a look around and enjoy what you got because it ain't gonna last long unless you get off your butt and take care of it.

Buy this book.

Virginia Arthur

RF reviewed a galley proof or "draft" version of my novel. They do not mention this in the review.

The book has since been revised and published in final form.
June 2014.

Please see my website at

Thank you.