The first pages of Natalie Brown’s debut novel might bring a reader to groan, “Not another story about a ninny falling for her college professor!” But The Lovebird proves to be more than the story of an ill-fated romance between a timid co-ed with a Strawberry Shortcake suitcase and a predatory teacher. The affair between the diffident Margie Fitzgerald and her Latin professor fades out almost as quickly as it begins. As a parting gift, however, he makes her the head of the fanatical animal rights group he founded and is now washing his hands of.

Feeling useful and included at last, Margie does something stupid and spectacular enough for her to be wanted by the FBI. With the help of one of her animal activist friends, she flees to a Crow reservation in Montana. Specifically, she’s deposited, like one of the stray bunnies she likes to save, at the home of a wise and elderly Crow woman and her family. Yes, yes, haven’t we had enough of authors bringing out old, patient, sagacious Native American women—to the point where we may secretly long for a matriarch who’s mean, irresponsible, potty-mouthed and can’t tell one herb or root from another? But that’s for another novel.

Besides, Brown’s skill pulls us into Granma’s warm, nurturing orbit in spite of ourselves. One reason we love her is the goodness she’s passed on to her son Jim, a chap who’s manly enough to rebuild a car engine and sensitive enough to cry when he shoots a buffalo. Another reason we love Granma is that she’s such a refreshing contrast to the watery Margie. Motherless, raised by a loving but sad and ineffectual father, Margie has been blown hither and yon all of her life like so much of the fluff that blows from the Montana cottonwoods. The rootedness of Granma and her family is what she deeply needs.

Skating so close to cliché and stereotype, then subverting them a little; making you feel for and believe in her characters and care about what happens to them—these are signs of real talent. Natalie Brown is a real talent.

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