I flew through The Miraculous Flight of Owen Leach in the days leading up to being induced for the birth of my first child. I highlighted the book in a frenzy. I’m writing the review on the other side, sleeping four-week-old by my side. I’ve reread the book. I’ve highlighted different passages, found different lines and paragraphs that resonate. I love and hate the two central mothers in equal measure, as I see myself in both of them.
Who gets to decide what makes a good mother? This is the question at the heart of Owen Leach, Jennifer Dupree’s debut novel. Readers meet two: Rose, age forty-one, married mother of one, and Sophia, age nineteen, single mother to Owen. Rose does the things society says mothers and wives should do: Worry, long for another child, rub her husband’s shoulders when he’s stressed, ignore her own pain, cook steaks and bake pies and make Halloween costumes. Sophia hides in her apartment when her son flies out of an open window. Rose, miraculously, catches him.
This incident pitches Rose and Sophia into each other’s lives. They are two women who at the very least care for Owen, who think they know what is best for him, and their definitions of best are directly at odds. On top of the conflict between Rose and Sophia, there is also the tension between mothers in general and society, the entitlement the latter feels toward the former. Early in the novel, Sophia reflects on the fact that, after her incident with Owen, people she “hardly even knew were coming up to her and telling her she had no right to be a mother after what she’d done.” Wherever she goes, she is confronted by strangers with opinions on her worthiness to mother, based on one moment, and, of course, far less information than the reader is provided with. ‘“You can’t just take someone’s baby away from her,”’ is Sophia’s opinion, to which a woman in a pharmacy has no response but a stare.
Hank, Rose’s husband, is the third central character to the story, the other lens through which it is told, though he has less page time than the two women. He is a man approaching a breaking point, unhappy with his job, unhappy where he lives, and increasingly unhappy with his wife.
The alternating viewpoints work well here, unpeeling reality in turns. We see the characters and their actions through their own eyes and the eyes of others. It also works to build the tension, especially in the final hundred pages, as the pace picks up, and the characters begin hurtling toward the conclusion of the story.
Dupree renders these lives clearly and with ease. She deftly depicts the pain of pregnancy of loss, the complexity of being a young and accidental mother. Even more so, she succinctly captures the claustrophobic nature of living in a small community. ‘“Maybe that’s how you do things in the big city, but not here,”’ Hank is told at work. ‘“People don’t just let things go.”’
Perhaps my favorite moments of this novel were the more religious ones with Rose. It would have been enough for Rose’s character to be without religion, enough for her to be a grief-stricken, desperate mother in the right place at the right time. But her spirituality adds another layer. Through this lens, to Rose, perhaps Owen’s rescue is more than a miracle in the improbable sense; perhaps it is a miracle in the divine sense. And while Rose’s more monstrous opinions are born of her faith—a mid-book conversation with a priest is a standout moment in this novel—it is also what often makes her most human. LIke when she recalls telling her mother “she was too sick to go to Mass just so she could have another hour or two wrapped up with Hank.”
I was not often surprised by the choices these characters made, but I was always shouting at them for their decisions, and begging them to get off the speeding train of their mistakes. When that train finally crashed, I was shocked at its location. By the end of the novel, everyone’s lives have crossed and boiled over with disastrous results, and we are left with the same questions as the beginning. Questions the book does not answer, and wonderfully so. Dupree doesn’t do the work for readers, it is for them to reach their own conclusions.
In the end, I was left thinking about Owen, how he was both child and symbol, baby and a stand-in for grief and loss, and how so often children are made to be more than children, carrying the weight of symbolism they have never asked for and cannot understand.
Publisher: Apprentice House Press
Publication date: April 19, 2022
Reviewed by Kathryn Ordiway