Book Review: The Pelican Tide

Sharon J. Wishnow’s debut novel, The Pelican Tide—set on Grand Isle, Louisiana, in 2010, just before the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill—is both an intense environmental disaster story and a heartwarming story of a family finding their way back to one another after a series of devastating events.

Josie Babineaux is a chef, mother, newly separated wife, and the “spice queen of the bayou.” Locally famous for the hot sauces of her family restaurant, Josie finds herself in serious financial trouble—thanks to her husband, Brian—and is counting on the publicity from a travel magazine’s upcoming cover story to help save her restaurant and get her family back on its feet.

Though Josie is feeling optimistic, life of late hasn’t been easy: She’s left Brian and moved back into her childhood home with her father and brother, upending the lives of her eleven-year-old son, Toby, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Minnow. The one family member not affected by these troubles is Gumbo, the brown pelican whom the Babineauxs rescued after Hurricane Gustav left him on injured on the beach. Still wild and free, Gumbo is a sweet, soothing presence as he remains close to his rescuers, nesting under the restaurant, playfully stealing things from diners, and perching on the Do Not Feed the Pelican sign.  

Then, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe sets off a series of events that threaten the path to recovery that Josie envisioned for her family. Not only is the Babineaux family deeply affected by the tragedy, the entire island’s way of life changes: tourism stands still, fishing is banned, and the air, water, and beaches become horribly polluted.

The explosion—which in addition to the human casualties killed thousands of marine animals and one million birds—forces Babineauxs to reflect on their longtime relationship with oil. “Oil platforms were a much a part of the coastal skyline as tall buildings were to New York City … They multiplied every year as Big Oil drilled deeper into the Earth’s crust. Oil cursed Louisiana like a witch in a fairy tale.” Now reliant on corporate payouts and worried for their future, the community struggles to regain its equilibrium in the aftermath of the spill, which leaked 13,000 gallons of crude oil per hour that eventually reached the shores of Grand Isle. Two weeks after the event, between 5,000 and 25,000 (depending on the source) barrels of oil was still leeching into the ocean every day, with relief nowhere in sight.

Minnow, who to Josie’s dismay is more interested in wildlife than in following her mother into the restaurant business, is newly critical of her father’s work with the oil industry. When her beloved Gumbo briefly goes missing after the spill, Minnow joins Hollis, an ornithologist and family friend, to travel to other islands to look for him and to check on other birds affected by the oil spill. Having occurred during the spring migration season, the spill has left pelicans and other birds covered in oil and unable to preen, risking starvation and hypothermia. Adding insult to injury, the dispersant used to “clean up” the oil spill can cause kidney and liver damage and can also affect bird embryos, putting more than a million seabirds at risk. When Gumbo returns, the family wants him to remain free yet protect him at the same time, and Hollis and Minnow arrange to feed him four pounds of clean fish per day, in hopes that he won’t fend for himself and risk eating contaminated fish. 

Meanwhile, Josie is devastated when the travel magazine backs out of its feature on her and the restaurant. The magazine can’t recommend travel to a region now covered in oil, and without tourists, she doesn’t know how she’ll stay afloat. Reminders of the tragedy are everywhere: “As the day’s heat rose, the chemical tang fogged the humid air and tasted like pennies.” As most of the town’s events get cancelled, Josie decides to enter a national sauce competition for a chance to win enough money to save her restaurant—and her family. 

Josie manages to raise enough money to pay the competition’s entry fee—then Hurricane Alex hits, causing damage all over the island and stirring up oil from deep in the ocean. Minnow becomes alarmed when Gumbo disappears again, and when he finally returns, his beak entangled in fishing line and feathers coated with oil, she insists on accompanying him to a rescue center three hours away, to oversee his recovery. Though it means putting her less-than-competent brother in charge of her booth at the sauce competition, Josie isn’t willing to separate her family again; they’ve already lost too much. They all travel to the rescue facility to be there for their avian family member. 

The Pelican Tide’s backdrop against the biggest oil spill in U.S. history makes this novel a riveting and edifying environmental tale. Every character realizes, at some point, the need to—and, often, the futility of—fighting against nature. Josie, who is finally feeling free from her abusive mother, realizes she’s powerless to win the fight against nature. Hollis, who gets to work cleaning birds at the rescue center, says, “It hurts to watch nature die and do nothing to stop it.” And as their recovery begins—for Gumbo, the Babineaux family, and the entire community—the human and nonhuman characters move forward in sometimes unexpected ways. 

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