By April Dávila
The first question I get, when people learn the title of my debut novel, is usually some variation of “why ostriches?”
Short answer: they’re fascinating, which, when I started this project, I didn’t even know. All I knew back then was that I wanted to tell a story set in the California desert. As an ecology major at Scripps College I’d fallen in love with the Mojave’s explosive sunrises, its defensive flora and hardy fauna.
The trouble was, my protagonist was based (loosely) on my mother and her experiences growing up on a dairy farm in the Sacramento valley.
After being assured by my mother that it would, under no circumstances, make sense to plunk a dairy farm in the Mojave, a fortuitous combination of search terms lead me to the OK Corral Ostrich Ranch, just sixty miles from my home in Los Angeles. I immediately emailed the owner, Doug Osborne, to ask for a tour.
Within minutes of arriving I knew I’d found something special. The birds were so strange, with their prehistoric skin and Lancome eyelashes, and Doug spoke of them with such affection, even while swatting away their invasive pecks. This was a place for contradictions. The perfect setting for a story about a family torn between love and hate, loyalty and abandonment.
Over the years I periodically spent days out in the desert with Doug, listening to his stories. Many of my plot points are pulled directly from his life on the ranch. At the same time, I dove deeper into my own family’s history to explore the ways that substance abuse and neglect have shaped us. What I ended up with was a work of fiction woven from strands of emotional truth.
The second question I usually field in regards to the book is some variation of “so you know a lot about ostriches?” to which I respond: I do now. And there were so many things I learned in my research that had no place in the story.
- First and foremost: ostriches do not, unless enticed with a tasty treat, stick their heads in the sand. It’s a myth. Of course, that didn’t stop me from embracing the metaphor, writing about a character that needs to pull her head out of the sand and take a good hard look at her life. But even in this work of fiction, I wasn’t so silly as to have an ostrich literally stick its head in the sand.
- I learned that the birds were nearly extinct when ladies the world over began to decorate their hats with long, luxuriant ostrich plumes. The market for feathers inspired industrious breeders and the ostrich population bounced back from the brink.
- In fact, before the first world war, ostrich feathers were the fourth biggest export from South Africa, after gold, diamonds, and wool. But the war made it impossible to keep up delivery routes and then, as automobiles (with their lower roofs) became more popular, feathers fell out of fashion.
- And did you know that Johnny Cash was nearly killed by an ostrich? The bird sliced open his gut with one powerful swipe of its clawed toe. If not for a hefty silver belt buckle, which stunted the attack, that might have been Cash’s last adventure.
- In Hebrew, the word for ostrich is “ya`anah” which means “greediness,” referring to the indiscriminate diet of the birds. They really will eat (or try to eat) just about anything.
- Their eyeballs are bigger than their brains and so it was always thought that they were dumb, but according to a 2016 study, it’s possible that their brains are just wired more compactly. They might not be as dim as previously believed.
- And the thing I love most about ostriches is how they share the work of sitting on their eggs. The females do the work during the day, when their dusty coloring allows them to disappear into the landscape. The males, with their black feathers, take over at night.
Since wrapping up 142 Ostriches I’ve begun work on my next novel and people often ask if I’m planning a sequel. “More ostriches?” they ask. But no. I’m moving on from the avian world to explore other topics, but I am so grateful for my time with the ostriches. This project was like a very long incubation period and now, finally, I am ready to stretch my authorial legs and explore the great wide world around me.
If you have any further questions for me, ostrich related or otherwise, visit my GoodReads page (http://goodreads.com/aprildavila) and ask away. I look forward to hearing from you.
Set against the unexpected splendor of an ostrich ranch in the California desert, April Dávila’s beautifully written debut conjures an absorbing and compelling heroine in a story of courage, family and forgiveness.
When Tallulah Jones was thirteen, her grandmother plucked her from the dank Oakland apartment she shared with her unreliable mom and brought her to the family ostrich ranch in the Mojave Desert. After eleven years caring for the curious, graceful birds, Tallulah accepts a job in Montana and prepares to leave home. But when Grandma Helen dies under strange circumstances, Tallulah inherits everything—just days before the birds inexplicably stop laying eggs.
Guarding the secret of the suddenly barren birds, Tallulah endeavors to force through a sale of the ranch, a task that is complicated by the arrival of her extended family. Their designs on the property, and deeply rooted dysfunction, threaten Tallulah’s ambitions and eventually her life. With no options left, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the fifty-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s death, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.