Reading a novel by Angela Johnson is like reading a poem: you find yourself collecting favorite lines and images the way 13-year-old Bird catches fireflies. They linger and glow, and you let them go, knowing there will be more. Bird is a small book, one to savor. The novel, told in three alternating narratives, has four characters, each with a "heart problem." When the story opens, Bird is living in a shed on a farm, secretly sponging off the family that lives there. She misses the stepfather who departed without saying goodbye and has left home to find him. While Bird's heart aches with longing for her stepfather and a normal family life, Ethan has an actual physical problem with his heart. He has had a heart transplant operation and the heart he received was from a local boy, the brother of the third character, Jay. Jay's heart broke when his brother died after they had an argument.
Jay wonders how Ethan might be affected by having his brother's heart. Will he starting acting like his brother, start liking some of the same things? "He's running around probably eating peanut butter and afraid of spiders like Derek was. Does he like storms and always put one of his feet out from under the covers at night? Does he cheat at cards, or sit real close to his brother or sister during a scary movie?" Observing Bird from his window one night, Ethan is reminded of his mother. "The world whispers when Mama is near. I'm thinking now that the girl dancing under the moon might make the world whisper too." Being away from home, here among friendly strangers, Bird begins appreciating her mother shopping, laughing, putting on lipstick. She says, "I try not to think about Mom and the good stuff." And that's what this story is about: the good stuff. It's an ode to the little things in our lives and the people who nudge us to see the world differently, to appreciate what we already have. Bird is a quiet novel with heart.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.