The Days When Birds Come Back
A Discussion Guide
An emotionally searing novel of second chances from an author whose “gorgeous and wise prose” (Cheryl Strayed) will stay with you long after you’re done
June is in transition, reeling from her divorce, trying to stay sober, and faced with a completely stalled career. She returns to the beautiful Oregon coast where she grew up, and must decide what to do with her late and much-loved grandparents’ charming cedar-shingled home, a place haunted by memories of her childhood.
Jameson comes highly recommended to renovate the old house to sell, and from their first contact, his curiosity is piqued by June. He too is unmoored as he struggles to redefine his marriage in the aftermath of tragic loss, and over the course of the summer, his conversations with June about the house quickly turn to the personal — of secrets hidden in walls and of stories from the past half-told. Sensing connection, June and Jameson can’t seem to stop circling each other, shying away from hurt. But what can the future hold as long as they are gripped so firmly by the past?
Brimming with empathy, The Days When Birds Come Back, like the house itself, is a graceful testament to endurance, rebuilding, and the possibilities of coming home.
Questions and Discussion Points
1. Consider the Emily Dickinson poem from which the title is drawn. Why do you think the author chose this as the title for her novel? How does it evoke the major themes and motifs of the novel?
2. Don Marshall tells Jameson that shooting the local invasive bird species is a “system of life.” When Jameson and Sarah Anne discuss this later, Jameson indicates that they “acted like they didn’t know what the neighbor meant…but they knew” (48). What systems of life do Jameson, his wife, and June put into place? Why do they feel they need these systems of life? Would you say that these ways of living are ultimately effective or are they prohibitive in some way? Discuss.
3. Evaluate the setting of the novel. How do the coast and the houses work not only as functional aspects of the setting but as symbol and metaphor? How do they help to reveal the innermost lives of the main characters?
4. Both June and Jameson return to the places that have caused them the greatest pain. Why do they choose to return to these places? How do they handle being back at these sites? Is their choice to return surprising? Why or why not?
5. June is curious how Jameson survives the isolation he experiences when he works in homes alone for long periods of time. How does Jameson say he copes with this?
6. June also inquires about the strangest part of Jameson’s work. He tells her that it is the things that he finds in the walls of the houses during renovation. What kinds of items does he find in the homes he renovates and what does it tell him about those who inhabited these places? What does this seem to suggest about common human experience?
7. Jameson wonders if June really didn’t love Niall or if was she rewriting her own history when she said that she didn’t (216). What does the book indicate about memory, trauma, and coping? Do the memories of the characters seem to be reliable? Explain. Are our memories fixed or are they editable as Jameson suggests?
8. When Eleanor confronts June with her presumption that June has stolen details of her life to include in her writing, June thinks: “We find what we want to find in others’ stories, see ourselves where we want to be seen” (218). What does she mean by this?
9. June observes: “To stand in the house was to be filled with a belief that a world full of sorrow was also a world full of grace” (251). Do you agree with her statement? Why does she believe that sorrow and grace may be linked? Where is there evidence of this in the novel?
10. June’s new neighbor Elin ends up sharing with June the ways in which her own family member’s lives were shaped by tragedy. What does this suggest about common human experience? In what ways does tragedy seem to shape or influence the lives of the characters? Does it have a purely negative effect? Discuss.
11. Elin is actually the main character from one of author Deborah’s Reed previous novels, Things We Set on Fire. Since Elin’s family story becomes inspiration for June’s writing, you could say that that makes June the writer of Things We Set on Fire. Did you read Things We Set on Fire? Can you sense June’s influence on it? Why do you think the author chose to connect these two works of fiction?
12. Evaluate the motif of guilt. Who in the novel experiences guilt and what causes them to feel guilty or responsible? What do they feel guilty for? Would you say that they are correct to assume responsibility for the things they feel guilty about? Why or why not?
13. While the novel encompasses issues such as mental health, crime, and gun violence, the book focuses on these topics from the vantage point of their emotional impact on a few people. Why do you think that the author might have chosen to take this approach in addressing these issues?
14. Before they share their stories, June worries that she has betrayed Jameson’s trust by not telling him the truth about her life. What is the secret that she has been harboring throughout her life? Why didn’t she ever tell anyone? Why do you think that she ultimately chooses to open up to Jameson? Likewise, why do you think Jameson is able to communicate with June in a way that he cannot with his wife, Sarah Anne?
15. How do the notebooks that Jameson finds change June’s perception of the events of her life? What might this suggest about perspective, our assumptions, and the potential for fault in our perception?
16. The meeting of June and Jameson seems to be serendipitous, but does the novel ultimately reinforce this notion of fate and serendipitous connection or does it place greater value on human will and action? Discuss.
17. Many of the characters in the novel are grappling with grief. How do the various characters cope with their grief? Do they do so in the same ways? Does the novel ultimately suggest how grief can best be dealt with or even overcome?
18. Consider the ending of the story. Were you surprised by the conclusion of the novel? Why or why not? Does the book ultimately seem to support an optimistic or tragic view of the world?
About the Author
Deborah Reed is co-director of the Black Forest Writing Seminars at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches at workshops in the US and abroad. Reed is the author of Carry Yourself Back to Me (2011), Things We Set on Fire (2013), Olivay (2015), and The Days When Birds Come Back (2018). She also published two thrillers—A Small Fortune (2010) and Fortune’s Deadly Descent (2012)—under the pen name Audrey Braun.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Jewell, Lisa. The House We Grew Up In
Leary, Ann. The Good House
Leavitt, Caroline. Pictures of You
Maine, Sarah. The House Between Tides
Makkai, Rebecca. The Hundred-Year House
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping
Stedman, M. L. The Light Between Oceans
Tartt, Donna. The Little Friend
Woodrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone