Naomi "Chirp" loves her family and their life on Cape Cod. She doesn't always get along with her older sister Rachel and her psychiatrist father doesn't understand her need for quiet and privacy with his insistence on everyone talking things out and sharing, but she is close to her mother, who loves to dance and she has her birds and the natural world that she loves to observe.
Then her mother gets sick. Everything changes and gets worse and worse. The small things that didn't matter before; being the only Jewish family in her school, her mom's more avant garde life compared to the more conservative, suburban moms, the boys next door she's supposed to stay away from, all become magnified. Her parents struggle to handle her mother's degenerative disease but her mother spirals into depression and is hospitalized. When she comes back, she doesn't seem like Mom anymore and everyone walks on eggshells, trying to preserve their fragile family. It's not enough and tragedy ultimately strikes. Chirp feels abandoned and separated from her remaining family and the friendship she thought she had with Joey next door. It takes some painful experiences before she is able to reconnect and begin the grieving process.
The historical setting of the book is referenced in mentions of the Vietnam war, occasional protests, and some pop culture, but I don't think most kids will really grasp any of those references except possibly the war. For me, the father's treatment of his wife, as he "analyzes" her issues in an extremely paternalistic fashion and eventually commits her to a mental hospital, where she undergoes electroshock therapy that radically changes her personality, was the most glaring historical note. How many kids will know about mental treatments of the 60s and 70s? Not many.
There's a secondary story line with Joey, the boy next door, who forms a friendship with Chirp and then attacks her when he feels betrayed. This story line wasn't really followed up; at the end, there's some indications that his brothers will protect him from his father's physical abuse, but nothing definite. This is not a book for kids who want a strong plot with all the ends neatly tied up; Chirp's story ends as she comes to a point where she's ready to begin grieving for her mother and coming to terms with her death and there are no easy answers to the family issues of anyone in the story.
Generally, I'm not much a fan of this type of historical fiction (or any historical fiction really) but I do try to buy a couple of these books a year for the girls who love, love, love this kind of book. This is definitely a two-kleenex box story and I have to admit that by the halfway mark I was wanting her mother to just DIE ALREADY so we could have one burst of cathartic grief. But that's just me - I feel uncomfortable with books (or any media) that I feel is trying to emotionally manipulate me.
This is a real tearjerker but also has some sharp insights into life and dealing with grief as Chirp struggles to come to terms with her mother's illness and sudden, shocking death. Her feeling of separation will definitely strike a chord with kids who are just starting to find their own identities and feel different (and what kid at that age doesn't?) from those around them.
Verdict: If, like me, you only buy a couple of this type of book every year (beautifully written historical fiction featuring girls whose mothers die and who are obsessed with the natural beauty of the world around them) this should definitely be one of them. I wouldn't be surprised to see it showing up on some award lists.
ISBN: 9780383386074; Published 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House; Review copy provided by publisher; Donated to the library