Wild Within, by Melissa Hart

I opened Wild Within intending to read just a few pages in preparation for the upcoming author lunch at The Book Nest. I couldn’t put it aside until I had read the last line of the epilogue.

When Melissa met Jonathan, her future husband, he was already an owl enthusiast. Gradually Melissa, too, was drawn into the orbit of The Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon, and went from procuring mice for food to training a baby barred owl. Melissa chronicles the process by which she and Jonathan decided to marry and adopt, as well as the surprising strength of her maternal instincts, once awakened.

Working with birds of prey helped to distract her from the ever-lengthening adoption process, but it didn’t displace the desire for a child. Melissa writes, “I wanted a child now, with a primal longing that startled and dismayed me. In my VW on the way to the grocery I pictured a car seat behind me, a little girl prattling and singing” (p. 206).

No doubt the book’s magnetic effect on me is a credit to Melissa’s finesse with words and story, but also to her transparent honesty. I could relate to so many of Melissa’s experiences: the inexplicable lurch from maternal indifference to a deep longing for motherhood; abortive attempts to adopt; ethical concerns about international adoption; the tension of a child that seems right for “her” but not for “him.”

Early in their adoption journey, Melissa and Jonathan were disqualified on a technicality for a China adoption around the same time that Melissa’s sister had a miscarriage. When Melissa told her sister she could still conceive, still have a baby, her sister replied, “I wanted this baby.” Melissa relates telling a friend: “Getting kicked out of China makes me feel like I’ve just had a miscarriage.” Melissa’s friend chided her for the comparison, but Melissa writes: “Kat was wrong … I did have a dead baby inside me. My whole being had danced around the idea of a little Chinese daughter, and now she was gone.” In my opinion, and based on my own experiences, Melissa was wholly justified.

Later, after opting for a Vietnam adoption, a child who they were considering died of malnutrition. Another miscarriage. A little farther down the road they pulled out of the program altogether after reading an article about international adoptions in Vietnam. That’s when they embarked on the long and winding road to adoption with the Department of Human Services.

Other shared experiences arise: Facing the painful reality that the needs of a referred child were greater than they could handle, the emotional toll of constant uncertainty, and her husband’s strength as she buckled under each emotional storm. I could even relate to Melissa’s recognition that, in the midst of those stressful years, giving up dessert would have been as difficult for her as nicotine was for her husband! And the repeated question uttered by every would-be parent, “It’s never gonna happen, is it?” (p. 223)

I confess that I didn’t linger as long over the bird passages, largely because I was eager to discover what was going to happen with the adoption story (even though I already knew that their adopted daughter is the same age as our seven-year-old). The book calls to mind Providence of a Sparrow, by Chris Chester, another memoir by an Oregon author that combines nuggets of bird lore with reflections on life. In Wild Within, parallels arise between rehabilitating birds that have been injured or neglected and the plight of children who, for various reasons, have had a bum start in life. Thus the title of Melissa’s slideshow presentation: “Everything I Know about Child-Rearing, I Learned from My Owl.”

We’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out the precise parallels between training Bodhi and Archimedes and parenting Maia, as the final chapter closes with Jonathan’s announcement to Melissa that “We got the Spud” (you’ll have to read it to understand). But anyone familiar with adoption–or even parenting–can extrapolate from Melissa’s accounts: the importance of attachment (bonding, if you’re working with a human baby, imprinting, if it’s avian), the anxieties and hangups resulting from abuse and neglect, the risks of a talon through the hand (or a jab to the heart?), and the ultimate rewards of it all.

I didn’t get around to revising and posting this review before the author lunch, but visiting with Melissa was just as delightful as reading her book. Check out her blog for other opportunities to meet her and buy the book: Melissa Hart.

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