by Lydia Melby
I often find myself appraising what I read—what I want to read—in terms of volume: does the lead character have a loud, singular voice? Does the book have a rushing plot, crash-bang-wow writing, an eerie, musical tone? Does the narrative hold a vibrant, pure, sustained note at the end that rings in my head for days after?
In literary crowds, I’ll be the first to defend a noisy, chaotic book (if done well, of course). My favorite writers tend to employ a large circus-rich cast of characters who whirl around on a carousel of motion and noise and call out in discordant voices, and while many people wouldn’t choose those types of stories first, I would.
But every once in a while, I come across a book that makes me pause in my usual headlong reading pace, and leaves a little impression in my mind, a tiptoed footprint, that I keep coming back to study over and over. Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow, winner of the 2012 Milkweed Prize for Children’s literature, is just such a book.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is narrated by sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson as she travels from her home in Minneapolis to Excelsior, MN, where she spends the summer of 1926 with her distant aunt and cousin. Garnet goes to Excelsior for many reasons—the purported excuse of escaping polio exposure, the real reason of giving her mother the whole summer to care for her WWI veteran father, who is adrift in the haunting memories of the war, and the added benefit of practicing her domestic and social skills under the tutelage of her wealthy aunt.
But Garnet is also grateful to escape the overwhelming romantic advances of her high-school beau, and is determined to make the summer her own, just as she wishes she could make her life her own in the coming years. Once arrived, she sets about becoming a “modern” woman—getting a job in a hat shop, reading all the ornithology and biology books her mother frowns on, sneaking out to the Excelsior amusement park to try the rides without a chaperone, and finally, falling in love with Isabella Strand, a lovely, exciting, unpredictable flapper whose life has been so different from her own.
Through it all, she continues her hobby of paper-cutting from sight the silhouettes of the birds (and sometimes people) around her. This hobby, originally a substitute for her less refined activities of “dissecting owl pellets and climbing in trees to look inside nests,” becomes Garnet’s method of discovery and interpretation.
As she explains to Isabella, “You cant just look at it and say ‘it’s an egret’ and then try to cut out the shape of an egret…You have to look for the borders between things and trace those dividing lines without thinking that you know what an egret is, or what a cormorant is, or what a grouse is. It’ll surprise you every time.” As she defines those around her by the space they choose to inhabit, Garnet is surprised again and again while trying to also find her own silhouette.
The girls’ romance spreads its wings, and over the course of their summer, they encourage and mystify, hurt and help each other. Their love story is sweet and genuine (certainly a welcome shift from the heavy focus on doom and gloom in queer YA lit), and through Garnet’s eyes, the reader will surely fall in love with vibrant Isabella too.
But this is not only a love story. Garnet is full, complex character—a bright student passionate about biology, birds, and conservation but destined for the expected domestic life she knows her mother wants for her. Her quiet struggle to balance the expectations and needs of her family, friends and society with her determination to act on her desires and passions is a compelling and rewarding story all of its own. Sparrow addresses a number of issues—veterans’ struggles, conservation of wildlife, class structure, sexual identity, and identity overall, independence in many forms—and the author seamlessly combines each narrative thread into a deceptively simple story about a girl on the shore of a sparkling lake, narrating her story of self-discovery in thoughtful, somewhat wide-eyed voice.
My only criticism of the book would be the treatment of Charlotte and Avery, two black characters who only occupy the boundaries of the narrative. Garnet spends more time and concern on the Great Herons and Snowy Egrets of the Lakes area, and condemns the killing of birds in the name of fashion or science, but she hardly bats an eye at her aunt’s blatant racism and barely pauses to examine her own bias. The biggest amount of empathy she experiences with Avery, the black doorman at her hotel who becomes a selfless, willing messenger for the girls, is when she compares his dignity to a double-crested cormorant, seemingly more admiring his resemblance to a bird than his humanity and admirable qualities. However, while Garnet’s interactions with and observations of the minority characters in Sparrow could have been more fully developed, she does recognize and regret her own ignorance at the end, though it does come off as a bit of a narrative after-thought.
There are no grand plot twists in Sparrow—no exploding cars, no government conspiracies, no terminally ill patients magically cured in the last hour, and mercifully, no paranormal paramours confessing their undying, non-human love. Excelsior is a small, bright town, the story covers a small space of time, and the book itself is a slim 186 pages, but Garnet’s modest goals and victories, while not earth-changing, do not make a small story. The plot certainly isn’t predictable, and while nothing that happens is out of the realm of possibility, the story is so expertly narrated in Garnet’s quiet, heartfelt voice that the reader cannot help but feel every action and reaction, every flush of love (and lust), every flinch of uncertainty, every twist of guilt and deep-breath of resolution along with her. Silhouette of a Sparrow is an expertly, simply wrought story that speaks softly over the clatter and jazz of the 1920s, and would make any reader lean forward, eager to catch every whispered word.
Lydia Melby is the current fiction editor for Flyway