Nightbird by Alice Hoffman, 197 pp, RL 4
Alice Hoffman is the author of many books for adults, a few of which have been made into movies, and a handful of books for young readers. Her newest book, Nightbird, brings magical realism, a genre mastered by Gabriel García Márquez, to middle grade readers in a way that is compelling and appropriate. Magical realism, which presents magical or unreal elements in an otherwise mundane setting, seems to rely on a romantic tragedy or sadness that results in an expression of magic in the form of levitation, telekinesis, telepathy or transformative abilities. Or wings. Last year Leslye Walton debuted the subtly gorgeous The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender in which the tragic love lives of one immigrant family find sadness manifested in avian ways. With Nightbird, Hoffman sets her story and the genre of magical realism squarely on American soil in the small town of Sidwell, MA, a small town in the Berkshires, with a historical lineage going back 200 years to the Revolutionary War.
Twelve-year-old Twig Fowler is the lonely, isolated narrator of Nightbird. As Twig tells us, Sidwell boasts the sweetest apples around, a monster and a witch. Twig's mother, a gifted baker, also happens to own an orchard filled with a very special variety of Pink apple trees and people come from miles around to buy her Pink apple pie that comes in two shades, Pink cider, Pink applesauce and Pink apple cake. In the off season sells Pink peach berry pie and Hot-Pink strawberry rhubarb pie. Twig's mother is tall and blonde and was an accomplished ballet dancer before she traveled the world learning to cook and marrying Twig's father then settling in Brooklyn to raise a family. But she has been terribly sad ever she moved back to Sidwell and she keeps herself, and Twig, as removed from society as possible. However, when Julia and her older sister Agate Early Hall move into Mourning Dove Cottage next door, everything changes and, as Twig and Julia uncover clue after clue, it seems as though history is about to repeat itself.
Hoffman weaves the historic, tragic love story of Lowell Fowler and Agnes Early, later known as the Witch of Sidwell for cursing Lowell and all his male descendants after he seemingly abandoned her, in with a story about Sidwell's Montgomery Woods. Despite a mysterious protestor, the woods are about to be turned into housing developments and shopping malls unless the endangerment of the saw-whet owls, which only exist in Sidwell, can be proven. It seems that Twig's mother is a descendant of Lowell Fowler and her teenaged son James, who she has kept hidden from the world since moving back to Sidwell, was born with wings. James takes flight at night, relishing his freedom, but risking his safety, especially as stories of the Sidwell Monster grow. When James and Agate have a chance meeting, it is love at first sight and tragedy and more sadness seem inevitable. Twig and Julia search desperately for clues that will help them understand and reverse Agnes Early's curse, knowing that time is running out as the summer fades and the red moon approaches. As Twig comes into herself, feeling less like and outcast and more like a valued friend, she in turn finds that she might be able to change James's fate and hers and heal her family.
Hoffman's writing is as delicious as I imagine a Pink apple pie baked by Twig's mother (there is even a recipe for the pie at the end of the book!) to be. I felt like I was in Sidwell, smelling the pie baking, seeing the little, black saw-whet owls in the trees and watching the children of the town put on the annual play. Nightbird feels complete and satisfying and I can't wait to hand it over to my students to enjoy!
Alice Hoffman's other books for young readers:
Source: Review Copy