Pigeon Feathers

by John Updike

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The story begins with fourteen-year old David trying to adjust to his family's move to Firetown. He is a bookish kid, and he peruses books as he tries to shelve them in an orderly way in the new house.

His father is a teacher, and the family has moved to a rural area, to the farm where his mother grew up. Her mother (David's grandmother) lives with them. The family is beset by tension. The grandmother has Parkinson's disease, and the mother is stressed from caring for her. The father tries to escape the domestic tension through working.

David contemplates death and religion. He finds both subjects unsettling. He is also uneasy about living in the country, being unfamiliar with it. The mother and father have an ongoing disagreement about chemicals; the mother wants to farm organically, but the father believes in the necessity of chemical intervention. He has little respect for men who farm the land.

David tries to get answers from his pastor to reconcile his rational thoughts with matters of faith. The pastor is unable to help him reconcile those feelings and becomes defensive. David concludes that organized religion is empty but enjoys the thought of salvation. His mother tells him that mankind created God, and David rejects the idea. He is preoccupied with the idea that death is final, and he hopes that there will be an afterlife.

David is told by his mother and grandmother to shoot the pigeons that are fouling the barn and the furniture stored there. David shoots a number of pigeons and then, at his mother's direction, buries them. In looking closely at the intricacy of the markings on the pigeons as he buries them, David seems to come to some answers about God, creation, and death that in some way answer his questions and comfort him.

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