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Bluebird Song Paperback – August 27, 2013
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The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
At age 45, having drifted too far from my original reasons for becoming a teacher, I quit a cushy policy analyst job and returned to the classroom. My colleagues thought I had lost my mind. Teaching young felons, I soon discovered that my work at a state education agency, my two-decades old teacher training, and two graduate degrees were essentially useless. In retrospect, my ten years working with troubled youth were by far the most rewarding, and eye-opening, of a 30-year career.
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Reading Morrison Phelps' impressive debut novel Bluebird Song," I was reminded of that old Walter Cronkite CBS News program "You Are There" in which reporters, in modern suits, were present at momentous occasions in history. In this provocative novel you are there in the reformatory school's woodshop, hiding behind the talking band saw, or avoiding the menacing table saw. You admire the pegboard filled with lethally sharp tools and the bold sign above them: A space for everything and everything in its space.
The story begins on Monday morning, first period. Slowly, carefully, the author introduces us to a cast of fascinating characters that none of us is likely to encounter, or would want to:
Murph, the burned-out former English teacher, re-assigned to teach high-risk juvenile offenders to make bookcases and doll cradles. Millie, Murph's wife, mourns that the man she married, who once listened to NPR, has now turned to Fox News as his source of knowledge and inspiration.
Maria, the English-challenged lesbian/madonna security officer, providing the glue that holds the class, if not the entire school, together. Able to bench-press three hundred pounds, Maria intimidates the inmates, who are fearful of being knocked to the floor by a woman. Arguably, Maria is the only normal person at the institution.
Eli, the black controlled-substance entrepreneur. sly, manipulative, and bi-lingual -- either straight English or street gangsta rap (there is an appendix translating the rap), proudly explaining how to steal a theft-proof Lexus. He is awaiting the results of a parole board hearing that will free him or cause him to lose two more years of freedom, plus his car and a son and the boy's mother.
Biff, the doltish, farm-raised, semi-literate, former barn-burner, famous for single-handedly causing human-to-sheep-romance to be outlawed by the Washington State Legislature. He was sent up for torching the barn to get back at the neighbor who obtained a restraining order to keep Biff away from his sheep. Although slow of mind, Biff often unwittingly leads discussions using the Socratic Method.
Thorny, short for Hawthorne Rutherford Coppersmith II, the new preppy resident, formerly a student at a high-end Catholic high school, and possibly convicted of using his mother's Mercedes to destroy a garden and injuring an elderly pedestrian. (No one believes this story because Thorny provides too many details, a sure sign of lying.) Thorny endlessly offers quotes from the Bible appropriate to any topic, from theology to the best wood glue.
The Rain. Unbelievably falling to double the depth of that in Seattle. A constant presence.
The Director (Unseen): Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Nodding, smiling, with foreknowledge of Friday's tragic dénouement.
The Producer (Also unseen): God. Alternately deified and demonized.
As the story unfolds, the reader is at first lulled into complacency with the family-oriented chit chat between Murph and the likeable Maria. Then elements of tension are introduced with the appearance of Eli, the clever "pharmacist," waiting to probe and exploit the weaknesses of everyone else. His primary foil, Biff, runs in out of the incessant rain – mourning the loss of his stay-at-home boa constrictor recently bifurcated by two pit bulls for having chomped down their step-brother, a Mexican Chihuahua. With a short fuse, Biff is purposely teased by Eli and concurrently protected by Maria, she subbing for the mother he hardly knew. Into this mix steps Thorny. Murph is seduced by the new boy's erudition and insights, not to mention knowledge of the Bible, and begins to see him as the son he had hoped for. The reader will sense that Thorny is too good to be true.
Soon, you'll be asking yourself "Which of these characters will survive through Friday afternoon?" The author is an adroit story-teller, combining an interesting narrative with enough suspense to make Bluebird Song a real page-turner. I couldn't put it down. I'm anxious to read this author's next work.
This would be a great book for a book club study or even a post graduate abnormal psych class.
There are several sideline characters running throughout the story, giving a Holden Caufield dimension to the boy who harkens back to their influence on him. In particular, the side story about the priest was riveting for me. He's going through secreted misgivings about the resurrection and heaven (the book presents some oddly provocative perspectives on religious doctrine) that are strikingly similar to those of his former student, a rich kid who is deeply conflicted about his own religious training and criminal past.
I greatly appreciated that Book Two ("In The Aftermath") was included and not made into a sequel under separate cover. You get to find out right away what becomes of the characters and their families after the week's horrific events. In Book Two you'll come across some very unexpected twists and turns, and in the end the author manages to bring lots of story fragments full circle, showing their unpredictable inter-connectedness.
I really think this is one of the better novels I've read in a long time. Not just because it has unique insights into the lives of troubled teenagers, or because it's so cleverly constructed, but because it's told with really great heart. My one issue would be the dialect for some of the characters. But then again, I got used to it. The colloquial Spanish for Maria the security guard seemed spot-on to me. I must say that I grew to love Maria. (Seemed to me that she is the Christ figure in this novel; a reference to Dostoevsky's cited presence in the story.)
I genuinely recommend this book for a fascinating and immersive read. Like the author says in his message: "I felt like I was living in a play with bigger than life characters."
Most recent customer reviews
in the classroom again. The author has really struck a chord with me.Read more