Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Ever-After Bird

by Ann Rinaldi
Harcourt, Inc.
232 pages, incl. bibliography
Review by Nancy Horner
Image courtesy of Harcourt, Inc

Cecelia McGill’s father has told her repeatedly that she has no soul and routinely beat her for the slightest infraction. Cece doesn’t understand why he risks his life helping hide runaway slaves; and, assumes the reason he treats her so badly is because he blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth. But, how can he be so cruel to her when he’s so caring to the slaves he helps?

When CeCe’s father is killed, her uncle Alex, a doctor and ornithologist, becomes her guardian. Uncle Alex is a gentle man who lost his only child and whose wife suffered paralysis in a terrible accident. CeCe finds him likable and kind. But, she’s not so sure she wants to leave her home -- particularly without her dog, cat and horse -- when Alex asks CeCe to accompany him on a journey to the South to hunt for a scarlet ibis to paint. Called “the Ever-After Bird” by slaves who believe they’ll be free forever if they spot the bird, Alex must move from plantation to plantation in his search for the elusive bird.

Alex and CeCe are accompanied by his assistant Earline, a former slave who attends Oberlin College. CeCe must not only learn to treat Earline as a slave owner might but also learn to hold her tongue when she witnesses the mistreatment of black families enslaved on the plantations where she and her uncle are treated as honored guests. Uncle Alex uses his search for the bird as an excuse to quietly give slaves advice on where to go if they run away and surreptitiously hands them money to aid in their escapes.

As CeCe travels around with her uncle and Earline, she sees sights that would make your toes curl, learns a few things about her uncle and Earline that shock her, and slowly gains understanding of why her father and uncle have spent so much time and taken so many risks helping people escape from slavery.

I have mixed feelings about The Ever-After Bird. I think the author did an excellent job of placing the reader within the time period and describing the horrors of slavery. It appears to me that Ann Rinaldi’s research is excellent. Additional author’s notes describe the real-life character upon which Alex is based, which lends some credence to the events that take place. I also think Rinaldi did a terrific job of describing how easy it is for people to mistreat those they love and how far an apology goes toward healing the hurts.

What I didn’t like was the fact that the book was written in a rather flat, simplistic manner. The tone not so bland as to put me to sleep, but it just seemed a bit choppy and I would have liked to see a little more craftsmanship in the wording. The main characters were okay, apart from Earline, who was a bit bizarre, in my opinion. One would expect more maturity out of a woman who had escaped from slavery and knew the ways of the South. Earline is combative, rude and surprisingly dense. It stunned me that she was so obnoxious to CeCe and never seemed to really know her place.

Also, I had to wonder whether or not a 10-year-old is mature enough to read about the kind of violence that occurred in The Ever-After Bird and on Southern plantations. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that I would have likely read the book around that age, had it been available, and would not have been overly offended or upset by the material. So, while I do feel a little iffy about this book and would give it an average rating, overall, I think the book provides a worthwhile peek into history and would recommend it particularly for the glimpse into plantation life.

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