A Bird in the Heart Flies

Thomas Tryon turns from horror tales and tries his hand at a grand historical romance. BOOKS

IN some of his previous novels, Thomas Tryon has distinguished himself as a scare-storyteller, who keeps his readers guessing right up to the end of the book. Usually, some final revelation in the closing pages about the identity or state of mind of the main characters gives the story meaning on a whole new level, and the reader whose intuition has been gathering hints and clues says ``Ah, so that's what was behind the story all along!'' Like a magician whose left hand misdirects the audience's eye while his right hand performs the trick, Tryon likes to have us fumbling around in the murky realms of psychic projection as in ``The Other,'' or earth-mother rituals as in ``Harvest Home,'' or enchanted celestial events as in ``The Night of the Moonbeam.'' Meanwhile, the real cause of mystery and coincidence is his tightly knit weave of human conspiracy or deliberate deception.

In ``The Wings of the Morning,'' his latest novel, Tryon steps out of the shadows of horror writing and commits himself to a full-fledged historical romance set in Pequot's Landing, Conn., in 1828. Aurora (The Beauty) Talcott, fresh from convent school, is a teenage member of the town's leading aristocratic family. The first object of her impetuous affection is Sinjin Grimes, a ``rakehell'' sea captain and the adopted stepson of the furtive mercantile clan that has set itself against the land-owning Talcotts. The central figure in the narrative is Georgiana Ross, miller's daughter, friend to all parties, and the one around whom the romantic subterfuges swirl.

Georgiana is a sterling, sensible character whose vision soars well above the sexist and racist mentalities of her contemporaries. She consistently sticks to her ethical principles, stands up to society, and entertains Joan-of-Arc fantasies about flying the banner of a great cause.

More than anything, ``Georgie,'' as she's called, embodies the quality of hope, and it is while standing at dawn among the geese and gardens and stag-at-the-millpond freshness of early America that she experiences these rushes of aspiration that she calls wings of the morning.

Tryon does add an element of dark intrigue to the story by casting a shadow of fate behind each of his characters. This keeps the reader focused on the possible long-term consequences of every incident. The dedication of the book is this quotation from Samuel Johnson:

``Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, / Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?''

As the star-crossed lovers meet surreptitiously for a blood-pact marriage, as Georgie admits a socially ostracized half-breed to her polite classroom, and as a violence-prone, religious fanatic staggers under the weight of his apocalyptic warning, the reader senses that coming trouble is assured enough to seem fated. Sinjin requests his future course from the thrown sheep bones of a fortune teller, and Aurora stands poised at the elopement ladder until a nightingales's call urges her on.

In spite of this subtly sinister undertone, the book has been assiduously researched, and its re-creation of 19th-century manners offers the reader a refreshing return to a more elemental existence. We hear the clump of boot heels on the tavern floor and the hiss of sleigh runners across newly rolled snow. At one moment we're watching a wild turkey trapped for Thanksgiving dinner or waiting at the dinner board for fried catfish fresh from the stream; at another we see the flash of swords in the lamplight of evening. The green-swathed landscape, complete with prosperous farmsteads and one-room schoolhouse, could have come straight from a Washington Irving tale.

TOLD mostly through the Talcott manor, the story does reflect something of the artificial and effete social manners characteristic of Victoria's reign, which would begin in 1837: ``Ah, Minnie, dear,'' he sighed lugubriously, ``so you are going to waltz at the spring cotillion, are you?''

This is the American version of country gentrification, led by the Jeffersonian figure of Appleton Talcott, who performs effortlessly as architect, antiquarian, inventor, and politician. The Talcott household breeds family members who are concerned about the needy, generous with guests, fraternal with servants, and working, working, working - royalty with sleeves rolled up.

Tryon also fills out the social spectrum with a colorful cast of characters from the lower echelons. A pitiable aggregate of native Americans and half-breeds on the periphery of town inhabits a rocky cleft called Lamentation Mountain. A dark-skinned, inarticulate child-of-the-wild named Ambo Buck is chained snapping and growling to a shed until Georgie tries to educate him. Mad miller Tom Ross sequesters a kettleful of silver.

The book's special delight is its focus on the causes of coming events. This fiction seems to play the same game with us that real life does. Events come about in an unexpected manner - surprise is sprinkled liberally throughout the story - yet there is some mysterious sense of continuity or coincidence or karma. It's as if these events had to happen. Georgie says it's Providence. Sinjin says it's the three sisters of fate. We feel we know but we don't know. We are put in the position of grandparents watching the young make the decisions that will shape their lives.

As events transpire, characters in the story are just as bedeviled as the reader by a sense of should-have-known. Tryon plays fair in this regard. His fateful finger is everywhere in the narrative like a series of little white gloves drawn in the margins of the page pointing out discrepancies and significant details and cueing upcoming episodes. Also, a considerable part of the storyline is carried by the oracular pronouncements of an Algonquian priestess named Cinnamon, whose clairvoyant predictions never miss.

After nearly 20 years of publishing fiction, Tryon's prose style has reached the stage of mastery. Formerly both a scene painter and a scene writer, he focuses his eye on each scenario as if it were a still shot, deepening its three-dimensionality and layering its emotional content.

His ear for voice tone and dialect is versatile, measured, and accurate. America's melting-pot character comes through as we hear a Scotsman's rolling brogue ``Oh, thou'rt a flouncy jade,'' the crackling Yankee twang of a down-easter, ``Well, here I stand like a row of corn!'' and the mumbling musical tempos of the West African servants, ``Whatchou all doin' gabblin' up here like a flock of hen turkeys?''

Action-hungry readers may feel the book is getting off to a creaking, heavy start; but once under way, either the pace picks up, or the reader's impatience slows down. The story is set in the time before electricity and before rapid transportation.

The book's fullness and scenic heft is also due to another cause. Knopf announced that this novel is to be the first of a series called ``Kingdom Come.'' It looks as though Tryon decided not to make each book a self-enclosed increment in an unfolding saga. He has conceived a grand scheme for the whole series of which each book will be only a small part.

So it is a wide-stage drama for which ``The Wings of the Morning'' paints its scenic and historic backdrops. And it is a grand chorus of characters who must be suited up with personalities, relationships, and past histories. As an enchanting, nostalgic excursion, ``The Wings of the Morning'' is a bird in the heart. Let it fly!

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