This is the type of story that, when you reach the end, you wish there were more, yet are relieved it is finished! Many have commented that it is the saddest story they have ever read. Others say there is something broodingly painful in it. It is a story that affects readers and is not easily forgotten.
The story is about 11-year-old “Chirp” Orenstein, a Jewish girl from Cape Cod. Her nickname, Chirp, comes from her hobby of bird watching. Much of the story contains happy moments about Chirp’s mother before she gets sick or memories of her afterwards. There is cooking, dancing, trips and laughing. The daughters, Naomi (Chirp) and Rachel, 11 and 13 years, dance together in bikinis, happy, young and vibrant with enthusiasm for all that is life. The writing is descriptive and beautiful, almost poetic at times. Everything revolves around the wonderful mother and her encouragement of her daughters.
However, darkness clouds their horizon. Chirp’s mother has something seriously wrong with her: she drags her leg behind her when walking. Doctors don’t know why, but eventually a diagnosis is made. Worse is to come.
This book is for older readers, rather than the minimum of 8 years as advertised by the publisher due to an episode of extremely lurid language and deeply disturbing themes throughout. The characters are shown to view religion of any sort as a series of strange rituals. Thanksgiving is also joked about by the characters but no attempt is made to understand or discuss it.
Yet the story is appealing because Joey and Chirp form a fairly innocent, naieve friendship. They are impulsive but in a very innocent way, perhaps throwing a rock or two here and there to release their pent up feelings. They become runaways, learning from each other, sheltering and helping each other too. Chirp’s birds become a metaphor for freedom in the story. Eventually, the children are brought back to the care of their families and have each grown in maturity and knowledge.
The representation of Chirp’s father, a psychiatrist by occupation, is rather negative overall. A sad story is heightened in tension due to this very logical, helpful – yet controlling husband. He is well-meaning but does more harm than good. Part of his character does ring true though – modern psychiatry and its insistence on “expressing your feelings” doesn’t always work. Words can only go so far in therapy and sometimes it doesn’t help to dwell on another parent’s problems in front of them with your children. The father’s insistence that his wife go through electronic shock treatment further alienates his older daughter and causes severe problems.
Lastly, the family is portrayed as being “outsiders” in a way, by being Jewish. However, what is unnecessary is to portray a jocular and half-mocking voice about Christianity. The sisters find a Bible in a drawer of the hotel and announce “The Christians put it there.” “So all of us would see the light, I guess.” “The holy light of Cheez Whiz.” (Cheez Whiz is what the girls have to say instead of the name Jesus because they are not allowed to say “Jesus”. It is what they sing during Christmas carols at school.) There is giggling and “Hallelujah.”
In another part of the story, a puff of wind blows some dried leaves into a minicyclone spinning in front of Chirp and Joey. Joey suddenly stands with arms out “like a cross” and Chirp adds, “Maybe it’s a Catholic religious thing that you do when you see a minicyclone.” Chirp and Joey then start spinning round with arms out because “It feels good,” yelling “Free at last! Great God almighty, I’m free at last.”
Some young Jewish kids mocking Christianity in a story and particularly Catholicism is not going to change the world. However, it is slightly disappointing as this can be powerful in sending a message to readers that it’s all right to laugh at others’ religious beliefs. It doesn’t encourage peace or bridge-building. The Jewish religion teaches respect for all other religions, so there is no place for this in the story. There was no attempt to understand or further discuss or make sense of anything. Even with her own Jewish traditions, Chirp seems confused. When her mom rocks back and forth and moans, Chirp believes it may be some sort of Jewish prayer. Yet this is presented a lot more positively than the spinning around on the cross episode. Similarly with politics, a lot of anger and hatred is put into the characters mouths.
However, the story was quite vibrant and there is great love between the main characters. I liked that the characters were often “in the moment” rather than always knowing what they were going to do next. This seems realistic for the way many teenagers behave. It gave the story spontaneity and life. But it is a dark story in the end and could be quite disturbing for some.
Reviewed as a pre-release e-galley; the final book may have been modified.
A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time mother of two.