May 07

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Land of Confusion by Kurt Kirchmeier

I have a clear memory of being ten years old and hearing “Land of Confusion” on the radio for the very first time. I had no idea who the band was or what the song was actually about; all I knew was that when I heard it, it felt true. It was sad and chaotic and grim, and it spoke to me in a way that none of the books I was reading at the time did. Looking back on this memory now, I’m struck by my immediate connection to such a darkly serious song, but the reality is that some kids have darkly serious childhoods—and these kids need books, too.

THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS is, in many ways, the book I craved as a kid. Although it does have its playful moments (it is about childhood, after all), it’s serious and scary, and it doesn’t shy away from moral uncertainties and challenging ideas, such as weighing the fate of your family against the fate of your community, and questioning your ability to make a difference in a big mad world, especially when that world turns against you.

Such complex themes may feel more familiar to kids who have grown up a little too quickly, but I think they’ll resonate with other readers, too, providing them a safe—and perhaps even thrilling—avenue to explore the strange and unfamiliar.

The strangeness in THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS begins when a mysterious darkness rolls into town and an old man turns to glass in the street—a transformation witnessed by eleven-year-old Ben Cameron and his older brother Pete. The glass plague, they’ll soon be calling it on the news, as reports of similar incidents start to pour in from all over the world.

Ben is a quiet kid, the kind who loves birds and drawing and Sunday trips to the local tea shop with his mom. Nothing in his life has prepared him for what will happen when the glass plague spreads, and when a mysterious voice on the radio proposes a plan that will ultimately force him and his brother to opposite sides, with the fate of their family hanging in the balance.

Ben soon arrives at that singular nexus where childhood ends and deeper questions begin, where an enduring love of games and play starts to overlap with a burgeoning thirst for understanding, and a realization that the world is far darker and more complicated than he could have imagined. I believe it’s here, at this nexus, that coming-of-age stories truly come alive. I also believe it’s here that scary and serious books find their audience.

Like most authors, I write from a well of personal experience. When I was ten years old, I survived a home invasion. A man who was known to my mother—but who was not a friend—broke into our house at 3 AM on Christmas morning. It was an old house a few miles from town, isolated and surrounded by trees. The man came in through the cellar door to our basement, then made his way upstairs, where my mom confronted him and slashed his hand open with a knife. My two brothers and I watched all this happen from the end of the hallway just outside of our rooms, and in the frenzied minutes that followed, as we raced down the stairs to escape, I was certain that my whole family (aside from my dad, who no longer lived with us) was going to die.

Thankfully we didn’t. Instead, the wounded man fled, leaving us to deal with the fallout of what we’d just been through—as if that was even possible. A few short hours later, I was opening presents, toys for a childhood that had abruptly come to its end.

This is truly scary stuff, and I’m not sure I could write about it in an authentic way without feeling like I might traumatize a young reader. But what I can do as a writer is explore the effects of such real-world trauma through a fantasy construct. I can write about kids who go to sleep in fear of their loved ones transforming and shattering during the night, and what it’s like to be a boy without a father in a time of unusual crisis. There’s no risk of our loved ones in real life turning to glass as they do in THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS, so readers are free to imagine fictional “what ifs” without the specter of real world “maybes.” In this way, the scariness becomes more approachable. It might even act as a bridge for young readers who’ve been shaped by frightening experiences of their own, and who may be having trouble—as I did—connecting with the sorts of books being read by many of their peers.

The song I mentioned at the beginning of this essay struck a chord with me, but it did so in an incomplete way, without any context or characters for me to connect or relate to. It’s my hope that THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS will strike a similar chord with its readers, and that maybe through Ben’s voice and struggles, they’ll discover meaning and purpose in their own. This world really can be a land of confusion, but it helps to feel like you’re not alone.

 

Kurt Kirchmeier is a Saskatchewan-based writer who has always been drawn to books with heart and a strong sense of mystery and wonder. He has a soft spot for speculative fiction and dark coming-of-age. Kurt’s short stories and poems have appeared in Abyss & Apex, Murky Depths, Weird Tales, Shimmer, Space and Time, Tesseracts 15, and elsewhere. THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS is his debut novel.

In addition to writing, Kurt also has a passion for photography. Birds are his favorite subjects, but he enjoys landscape and macro photography as well. To see his work, please visit his Flickr site. Kurt’s photos have appeared in Photonews Magazine, Living Bird, All About Backyard Birds, and elsewhere.   

When he isn’t writing stories, taking photos, or connecting with nature, Kurt enjoys reading and listening to podcasts. He also fancies a good cup of tea and shoots a mean game of pool. The smartest thing he’s ever done is marry his high school sweetheart.