Saturday, March 2, 2013

Silhouette of a Sparrow

By Molly Beth Griffin

Four Things I Liked About Silhouette of a Sparrow:
1. Setting/time period
2. Character-driven plot
3. Garnet’s silhouettes
4. Coming of age

I felt an affinity for this book before I even read it. For one, it’s published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit publisher in Minneapolis, close to where I go to school. I like that Minneapolis has such a rich and productive literary community, all too uncommon outside of NYC. For another, the author and I share the same first name. According to a recent psychology lecture I attended, we are naturally predisposed to prefer things that even contain the letters in our name. So can’t blame me for liking something that contains the whole thing! ;)

It’s 1926 and Garnet Richardson is being exiled to the lake to limit her exposure to the polio epidemic endangering the city. Unlike many a disgruntled exiled heroine before her, she thrills at the freedom the lake resort and its nearby amusement park offers her. She dreams of a summer of fun and independence before she returns to an engagement and her final year of high school in the fall, after which she’ll be expected to settle down with her nice but bland boyfriend and surrender her passion for ornithology and learning to the demands of keeping house. Everything is not as she dreams, however. The watchful eye of her aunt cum chaperone compels Garnet to seek independence and excitement where she can, in a new job and a clandestine friendship with a flapper who makes life just a little brighter and Garnet herself a little more bold. But Garnet cannot escape the looming shadow of fall, and before the summer wanes, she will be forced to face challenging dilemmas about identity, loyalty, and what it means to do the right thing.

Garnet is such a charming protagonist, guys. I love her bookishness, her independent streak, her loyalty to the people she loves, her sense of self, her willingness to take a chance, and, of course, the silhouettes of birds she cuts out of fabric for fun. The 1920’s setting – featuring the requisite flappers and dance houses and bootleg liquor, despite taking place in the countryside – is always fun, and Griffin uses it to its best advantage, painting its trappings as quintessentially embodying the vivacious and rebellious spirit of youth. Though the 1920's may seem like an obvious setting for this kind of story (for the very reason of its devil-may-care metaphorical resonance with young adulthood), details like Garnet's interest in ornithology keep it quirky and fresh. The amusement park was a fun addition, too, being something new and controversial that we take for granted as being universally accepted and approved of today. I like how Griffin tackles GLBT themes without making them The Issue, rather weaving them as one thread into the complex web of identity discovery that takes place at Garnet’s age; it comes across as a forward-thinking lesson to be learned from a book that takes place almost a century ago. And, indeed, that’s one of the things that ultimately makes Silhouette of a Sparrow so compelling – the way Griffin crafts a tale as rooted in its historical setting as it is resonant with contemporary adolescents. That, to me, is the beauty of historical fiction at its best, when it connects the past with the present and reminds us how little we have really changed.

Books Read This Year: 19
Top 100 Progress: 50/100


  1. Glad for the return of Shelf Life posts after a short draught!! : )

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