SPOILER ALERT: The sentence below is the most untrue statement in MOURNING DOVE:
“Dammit, Jen! You didn’t have to die to get me to grow up!”
Jen’s grandfather’s lifelong mission has been to save life on Earth from climate disaster and then join his extended family in Antarctica rebuilding human civilization. Jen’s Mom, a physician and biological scientist, believes they can do no more to prevent humanity’s extinction. She takes over ther mission to make sure the family travels from their Alaska mountaintop station to their family’s community in Antarctica so Jen and her siblings can finally meet people their own age. The mission is dangerous. They must get past desperate people who barely manage to survive by killing others to take everything they have.
That afternoon, Mom and her oldest child, Fred, get caught in a freak snowstorm, slide over a cliff and die. The following day is Jen’s sixteenth birthday. As her mother’s body is lowered into the ground, Jen vows to her mother’s soul she will fulfill her mother’s mission herself. While Grams, Jen’s grandmother, conducts the service, Jen notices her younger brother, Ttuuee, has his tablet computer at the funeral. He’s an “evil little devil,” and she’s angry until she realizes he’s using it to hide his tears. Grandpa, their grandfather, is a rocket scientist and says Ttuuee is the smartest member of the family, even smarter than Grandpa. For her mission, Jen will have to work with Ttuuee, help him grow up, and repair his relationship with Dad, with whom he has never gotten along. After the funeral, Jen is on her bed, crying. Ttuuee knocks and comes into her room with his iguana, Caulfield, on his shoulder. Jen hates the lizard. But Ttuuee insists Jen is the sweetest and most beautiful person in the family. Having a tough, strong, and beautiful pet will help her be tough and strong. He says he loves Caulfield but loves her more, so he must give her his pet for her birthday. Jen’s heart melts and she accepts. She reaches to give Ttuuee a hug. Caulfield runs off but the door is closed. The iguana turns around and looks at Ttuuee and Jen quizzically. Jen and Ttuuee laugh, and cry, and hug each other.
On the day after the funeral, Jen’s Dad, Phil, refuses to get out of bed. He also refuses to even consider their trip to Antarctica. Grandpa tells Dad a pair of mourning doves made a nest in the carport of the home Grandpa lived in as a child. In their first year they had two eggs. The birds cared well for their eggs and hatchlings, and eventually all flew off healthy. The pair returned a year later. They had three eggs this time. But shortly before the eggs were to hatch, the mother bird was killed by a neighbor’s cat. The father bird refused to sit on the eggs. Instead, he stood a foot away and shouted, as loud as he could, the call of the Mourning Dove, koo kurikoo koo koo. He continued for eighteen hours straight, and then flew away. The eggs eventually rotted. A year later, the father bird returned. He stood in the same spot, a foot away from the nest, and cried the same cry. He mourned for four hours this time before flying off never to return again. Grandpa tells Dad not to let his own children rot away without ever seeing others their own age. Jen walks up to Dad. In his face she cries, “Koo kurikoo koo koo.” She knows it’s the strongest thing she can do. Saying anything will detract, so she turns and runs back to her bedroom, hoping she succeeded. She did.
Grams insists to Jen and Ttuuee she and Grandpa will not leave. Grams is Jen’s best friend. They watch movies together nearly every night. Jen asks how she could possibly live without her Grams. Grams says that is why they must separate. She refuses to be a burden on Jen, in Antarctica or Alaska. Jen must fly off, leave the nest, and not be a caretaker for her old grandmother who becomes more frail every day. Jen is stunned. Grams gets foot cramps, and Jen loves massaging the pain away. It is a special time for them together. Who will do that for Grams if she left? Grams insists Ttuuee and Jen go and prepare for their trip. Ttuuee runs off. Jen hesitates. She so much wants to turn back to Grams, give her a hug, and say she will stay and always care for Grams in her old age. But Jen swore to her mother’s body as it was lowered into the ground. In the toughest decision of Jen’s life, she forces herself to keep walking, moving away. She begins to sob, as she is abandoning her Grams.
The family jokingly calls Grams, “The Colonel.” Her father, who was a four-star general on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped make sure their Alaska station is lavishly provided for. They have a military cargo plane, but not enough remaining fuel to reach Antarctica. As they fly to Chicago to get fuel, Jen becomes airsick. She stands up when her stomach starts to hurt. Concerned, Ttuuee stands next to her, holding his tablet computer. The plane encounters turbulence and bounces. In a reflex reaction, Jen’s arms shoot out to keep her balance. Her hand hits Ttuuee’s tablet. It smashes into a sharp object in the plane’s storage area. The screen is cracked and the computer is dead. He starts to cry. Then he runs to his co-pilot seat in the plane’s cabin. He already is angry because she did not take Caulfield with them. She needs her brilliant little brother’s support, but she keeps making it worse. She collapses into her seat, reaches for a barf bag, and barely manages to open it in time.
Grams and Grandpa’s friends, the Nytlees, are not at the Chicago landing strip. Dad fears desperate climate refugees might have killed them. Taking weapons, he, Ttuuee, and Jen walk to the Nytlee’s apartment. Max Nytlee is slumped over his desk, dead. A paper near his hand is addressed to Grams and Grandpa. He has written that his wife, Rochelle, died a few weeks earlier. He has buried her and asks to be buried next to her. He describes how to find the fuel they need and that there no longer are desperate, evil climate survivors in Chicago. Other papers are love poems he wrote to Rochelle after she died. Jen reads them and changes the goal of her mission from meeting others their own age to finding romance that lasts a lifetime and more.
In the air, a warning light shows flying at fuel-efficient altitudes is dangerous and they cannot reach Antarctica without repair and refueling. Storms prevent them from returning to Chicago. Dad insists they fly to a Denver climate station for repairs and fuel. Before they left Alaska, Grams told Jen not to let Dad fly to Denver. The love of his life, Jennifer, died in his arms there. Grams thinks Denver might make Dad, her son, suicidal. Jen knows he named her after Jennifer. She is very confident in her father’s love for her, and it will keep them safe. Jen believes her decision concerning Denver is the strongest leverage she will ever have over him. She will use it to fix the relationship between Dad and Ttuuee. Mom was unaware of Jennifer until she was nine months pregnant with Ttuuee, more than a year after Jen was born. Jen tells Ttuuee that Mom, who was from Finland, gave Ttuuee his Finnish name as revenge against Dad, and Dad has resented Ttuuee because of it ever since. Jen negotiates. She will allow the trip to Denver only if Dad apologizes to Ttuuee and agrees to try to love him as much as he loves Jen. She persuades Ttuuee, out of his love for Mom, who forgave Dad, to also forgive Dad and consent to Denver. Dad and Ttuuee eventually agree. But before landing, they notice the Denver station is now occupied by murderous climate migrants. They continue to fly South.
They touch down in a small joint military base town near a bay in southeastern Brazil but the untended, aging landing strip damages one of the plane’s wheelsets. The rough landing also damages the shortwave radio they use to communicate with Grams and Grandpa. Walking to the bay to desalinate water, they pass through the town center but see no evidence of living inhabitants. In one of the few intact storefronts, Jen notices boxes containing tablet computers similar to the one she knocked out of Ttuuee’s hands. Early the next morning, she straps guns on her hips and sneaks out to get him a new tablet as a birthday present. Ttuuee gets up, realizes Jen is gone, and awakens Dad. As they exit the plane, a woman points a rifle at them. Dad shoots her and a teenage boy with her. Grams was a decorated Army sharpshooter and trained her son well. As he and Ttuuee approach the town center, they see from a distance Jen with an older teen on top of her, attempting to rape her. Others are nearby with guns. Dad starts shooting, while Ttuuee runs to Jen, dodging bullets. Dad shoots a boy holding one of Jen’s guns, which falls next to the left arm of the rapist, who reaches for it. Jen grabs his arm and bites it, at the same instant Ttuuee shoots the gun away from him. In desperation, the rapist grabs a knife from his belt with his other hand and stabs Jen in her naked chest, through the heart. His head explodes with a bullet from Dad, a moment too late.
Dad carries Jen’s body to the town’s church cemetery. He and Ttuuee find a pair of shovels waiting for them, and an open door to a shed containing caskets and headstones. Emotionally and physically exhausted after burying her and very hot, Dad sits in the Church’s shade. He falls asleep. Hours later, Ttuuee falls asleep as well. When he wakes up, Dad hands him a pistol and begs Ttuuee to shoot him, and then shoot himself. Ttuuee slams the palm of his fist into Dad’s chest. He says “No! Jen had a mission she died for. At Mom’s and Fred’s funeral, Grams talked of life after death. Even if you only barely believe in it, could you face Jen in an afterlife and say you gave up on her mission and killed yourself? Could you look her in the eye and tell her that?”
Dad says, “No,” and his eyes tear up. Ttuuee grabs him and hugs him. Dad returns the hug. They are father and son, and still have each other. Ttuuee feels love in that hug. It is something he has been craving, needing, for his entire life and especially now.
Repairs and refueling are possible but will take months. They again desalinate water. It is a very hot day. Carrying heavy bags of water back to the plane, Dad feels sick and collapses, unconscious. Ttuuee shouts, “No! You can’t die here.” He cries for help, and just cries, until he feels a hand on his shoulder. She wears nothing but impressionist camouflage paint, a bikini bottom, and a toolbelt. She uses a knife from the belt to cut Dad’s shirt into rags, dips some of them into a bag of water and wipes Dad’s face and chest with the wet cloth. She drips water onto Dad’s lips. He wakes up coughing and asks Ttuuee for water to drink. There is no common language, but they understand her name is Gerta. She and Ttuuee half walk, half carry Dad to her home, which she shares with an old, fat, dark-skinned man named Manny, who has a terrible cough. Ttuuee and Gerta set Dad down on her bed. Dad insists Ttuuee run to the plane for a laptop with a simultaneous translation app so they can communicate.
Ttuuee searches the plane’s medical files and medical supplies for a cure. Back at Manny’s, Dad insists on using the translation system before taking Ttuuee’s medications. Dad asks, should he die, that Manny and Gerta take care of Ttuuee. Manny agrees on the condition that should Dad survive, they take Gerta wherever they go. Dad’s illness worsens. Ttuuee fears he is killing Dad rather than curing him. While Dad sleeps fitfully, Manny tells of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. They adored each other, but could not have children. She was visiting her brother’s family as they were attacked by desperate climate migrants. Hearing gunfire, Manny ran to help. He saw his wife shot and killed by a woman holding a toddler girl in her arms. Manny shot the woman. The girl was unharmed. One of the few words she knew was her name: Gerta.
Dad’s fever breaks but he is very weak. Fixing the plane depends on a quick and full recovery. Manny’s mother was part of a military intelligence team building a highly advanced spy ship disguised as a factory fishing vessel. One week before its launch, the military recalled her team to protect major Brazilian cities. She arranged to stay and secure the ship in drydock to survive the passage of years. She tinkered with it for the rest of her life. Manny offers her ship to Dad, Ttuuee, and Gerta, as a better and easier way of getting to Antarctica. Ttuuee convinces Dad to at least look at it. The drydock building is huge and very hot, without water nor electricity. The ship is electric powered. Dad believes the batteries can never be charged. The ship is not an option. Ttuuee studies the considerable documentation Manny’s mother left behind and disagrees with Dad. He climbs to the drydock’s roof and replaces every solar panel and electrical cable. He restores the building’s plumbing. He turns on the building’s light, air-conditioning, elevators, and working bathrooms. The ship’s name is the Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s horse. Because of Ttuuee’s efforts, Dad and Manny mount working commodes, with soft toilet tissue both fondly remember from childhood. Ttuuee goes to the ship’s helm and mounts his steed.
Manny coughs up blood. He tells Ttuuee that in Antarctica without paint, Gerta will be seen by other teens as a pretty seventeen-year-old who cannot read nor write in any language, nor even count past ten, someone ripe for abuse. He asks Ttuuee to care for her as a sister. When the Bucephalus is out of dry dock and in port, Manny paints its name onto the hull. Then he dives off his scaffolding, swims out into the bay, and allows himself to sink. His wife was buried at sea nearby. Ttuuee imagines them swimming side by side for all eternity.
At sea, Dad repairs the short-wave radio and connects with Grams and Grandpa. Speaking to his mother, he cries like a baby from guilt that he failed at saving Jen. Despite his mother’s lessons, he hesitated to take the kill shot that would have prevented her death.
Sailors from a South Orkney Island fishing fleet protected by a well-armed police boat mistake the Bucephalus for a factory fishing vessel and attempt to seize it. At Ttuuee’s encouragement, Dad takes command, uses the Bucephalus’s advanced munitions to destroy the invader’s weapons, and chases them off. Dad’s mood is greatly improved.
Grandpa’s cousin, Catherine, built the Darlton colony with inherited money. She acts friendly and welcoming. She rules the colony as queen and even jokes with Ttuuee about it. She introduces Dad to engineers and scientists. Ttuuee notices a girl in a far corner that has strong sunlight and dark shadows. With the lighting and her mischievous smile, she reminds him of Rembrandt self-portraits. She is his “Rembrandt Girl.” As Ttuuee begins school, he befriends her. Her real name is Snana, which comes from her Native American Lakota heritage. In a short-wave call, Grams tells Ttuuee that Catherine pretends to be friendly but actually is rather evil. Her money, Grams says, rightfully should have been Grandpa’s. Grams also says that Ttuuee should not trust Snana, who very likely is a pawn Catherine uses to do harm to him and Dad. Grandpa blames Grams’s mood on Jen’s death.
Ttuuee writes a program to have the Bucephalus weaponry redirect a melting glacier’s tributary stream so when it calves off it doesn’t destroy the hydroelectric power plant on the Colony’s river. A Darlton cousin and his bully friends try to grab Ttuuee moments before he hears the sound of a Bucephalus laser cannon. Ttuuee escapes and outruns them. As he nears the water, he sees evidence that the Bucephalus shot a blowtorch out of the hands of a man trying break through locked gates to board the ship. In the distance, Police officers are holding Dad in handcuffs. Ttuuee instructs the Bucephalus to immediately run his program to divert the glacier’s tributary. When the noise dies down, he instructs the Bucephalus to amplify his voice. He announces that the Bucephalus just saved the colony. The ship cannot be boarded without his strongly password-protected approval, and never again will it assist the colony unless they immediately release his father. He avoids the word “weaponry,” knowing his demonstration scared everyone who saw it. Catherine has Dad released. Showing bravery and spirit, Snana runs aboard the ship to talk with Ttuuee and Dad. She relays Catherine’s order that Dad meet with her that afternoon. Ttuuee insists that he, not Dad, will meet with Catherine and Snana must be there. Dad will command the Bucephalus’s weapons should they be needed. At the meeting, Ttuuee issues non-negotiable demands: no one will ever contest that the Bucephalus is owned by and is the home of himself and Dad; he and Gerta will continue in the Darlton Colony educational system; and Catherine no longer will use Snana or anyone else as a pawn against him. Ttuuee tells Snana he knows he has just accused her of pretending friendship at Catherine’s command. If she hates him now, he understands. But he asks her to forgive him and remain friends. He tells her how much he likes her. She appears confused, struggling to suppress anger. She glances at Catherine who indicates she should remain friends with Ttuuee. Looking defeated, she says she will. Ttuuee ends the meeting over Catherine’s strong objections.
Snana does not avoid Ttuuee, but her anger is evident despite his best efforts. Then her very old, very beloved dog dies. Ttuuee visits her at home. She is waiting for a veterinarian to take the body. Ttuuee volunteers, instead, to dig a grave under a tree and help her conduct a proper funeral. While he is digging, she shouts, “Why are you being so kind go me?” They talk. By the time the last shovelful of dirt is placed on the grave, her anger is gone. During the discussion, she mentions that Catherine brought mourning doves to the colony. A few days later, they spend a day together in the woods and enjoy each other’s company as they see and hear the doves. He watches her practice piano and she gives him lessons. She teaches him and plays for him. After romantic sonatas, he walks back to his ship. The weather is beautiful and he sees a comfortable grassy patch. He rests on it and thinks of how much he is attracted to Snana. Then he leans back and shouts to the sky, “Thank you, Jen, wherever you are.”
He hears a very distant response. He is sure it is Jen’s voice. It says, “Koo kurikoo koo koo.”
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