Review of Susan Feathers’ Threshold

For many of us global warming is a fact we live with without having a clear picture
of just how global warming works. And while we know the effects will dramatically
change environments everywhere, we don’t have a vision of what daily life might be
like once the current levels of greenhouse gases multiply to immediate crisis
proportions. Susan Feathers’ new novel, Threshold, is a compelling account that fills
in both of these gaps.

Threshold makes an enormous contribution to contemporary literature by teaching
readers—in engaging and utterly consumable terms—about the physics of “the
planet’s human induced fever.” Susan Feathers stages the need to know as part of
the narrative dynamic. Key characters —academics, school teachers, museum
biologists—understand only too well the processes by which the earth is growing
hotter, while others don’t. The latter are in some cases too young or inexperienced
to know; in other cases they’re complacent or too far in denial to face them. Those
who know teach those who don’t. Through lively dialogues concerning, for example,
how sunlight gets converted to electricity; or how oceans absorb solar energy; or
how neighborhoods can set up electrical generating systems, we learn along with
the characters. We’re invited to go through the same processes of recognition and
assimilation that the various students in the story experience.

Threshold begins with a map. The author’s opening gesture to her readers is visual:
she asks us to see the region and the particular places where her story unfolds. The
map of the Madrean Sky Islands—the mountain range that spans the border south
of Tucson—is the first indication that this environmental novel engages readers’
senses as much as it emphasizes the scientific facts of climate change. The smells,
sounds, tastes and touch of Threshold’s landscapes evoke a sensory richness and a
vivid drama of place.

The place Susan Feathers gives us is, literally, hot. You can feel the rising
temperature and the parched bodies of plants, animals and humans trying to live
with minimal water resources. In these bare, ever constricting conditions, Feathers’
human characters—and the jaguar Duma—come alive on the page. I’ll give one
example here: an adolescent burdened with family and personal problems tries to
keep from succumbing to gang pressures: The heat bore down on Enrique as it bore
down on the desert cities. It bore down without a cloud to cool burning skin.
In a riveting, multi-stranded plot, Threshold translates the conceptual worry over
climate change and into immediate, interpersonal dramas. In the process, Feathers
dramatizes emotional response and avoids straight polemic. The veterinarian at a
wild life center, after working to keep the animals and museum staff safe, is “tired
and wary from her constant concern about the heat and blackouts.” (143) We meet
people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and classes whose quotidian
experience is intricately connected to shortages of not only cool air and water but
food, economic stability, and security. The mayors of Tucson and Nogales juggle
politics against the needs of their constituencies; an academic water biologist
monitors the world’s shrinking aquifers and expanding oceans; a food bank
manager sees his facility take on the gruesome task of body storage; a wild animal
veterinarian risks treating the giant Duma’s wounds, acquired when “the cat”
wanders out of its homeland range in search of prey; Tohono O’Odham elders
retune ancient methods for desert survival; Native, Latino, and Anglo teenagers
resist and pitch in on projects to manage the overlapping crises; gangsters take
advantage of the situation; Border Patrol, local, and national law enforcement try to
manage it.

I was especially taken by Susan Feathers’ ability to evoke human-like agency in nonhuman characters. The most palpable instance of this is the marvelous figure of
Duma, the giant albino jaguar. We follow his trajectory from childhood—his
whiteness marks him as different and thus neglected by his mother—and hope for
him as he makes his way down from the mountains to the borderlands where
trouble is always brewing. We cheer him in the end after a dramatic rescue. The
third person narrator wisely avoids trying to mimic animal perceptions in a realist
mode but gives us just enough of foggy vision, keen sense of smell and fear to inflate
Duma with character-like dimension and make him far more than an animal on the
periphery of the story.

The desert itself emerges as another non-human, central character in Threshold.
Feathers evokes its presence eloquently, particularly at night. A father and son,
weary from mourning, retire for the night: “While Ed and Daniel slept, the desert
came alive around them.” A specialist at the natural history museum watches the
dark come over the desert: “he could feel the quickening of the land as the sun
withdrew its daggers of heat and light….he felt the movements of the nocturnal
desert pageant taking stage again.” He and his wife start to doze in the desert air as
“The night lay quiet across the Old Pueblo.”

In a novel about the threat of global warming, readers will watch with great interest
to see how the writer pictures the shift from a present of warnings and predictions
to a new present where the changes are dramatically in place. To avoid spoiling
things, I’ll just say that Susan Feathers manages this shift with great effectiveness.
Towards the end of Threshold, the characters who have until this point struggled to
prepare for the trouble are now actually living with it. The shift has happened
quickly, and we get close-up, tangible pictures of what climate change means. Good
story teller that she is, however, Feathers doesn’t leave us in this darkness but takes
us to a Day of the Dead celebration in Tucson’s Old Pueblo. Picturing a more
optimistic encounter with death, the characters sing, dance and take part in the
familiar rituals. This closing image capitalizes on the buoyancy and spirit of hope
we’ve seen in these characters throughout the novel as they try, convincingly,
plausibly, and in ways that elicit great sympathy in readers, to make the best of a
world gone dramatically too hot and dry.

Mary Lawlor, Muhlenberg College (