*spoilers - shucks, I can't seem to write a review without spoilers.*
I don't read any reviews or the blurb before reading a book. I don't want to be prejudiced in any way. I loved the magical realism and fairy tale link to Hans Christian Anderson's "Nightingale." It wasn't until the Emperor called his tape recorder a "cage" that I remembered the story and started to see the connections between the two. The reader first knows that Gayle's voice heals when she sings and the cut on Little John's hand heals. Later when she heals a deer that is near death, the reader knows that this story is part fairy tale. Because of this, the ending worked for me with Gayle's transformation.
Gayle can't heal everyone but she does make an impact on Little John and his dad, the latter smiling for the first time in ten months after he hears her sing. Mrs. Cutlin and Jeb are immune to Gayle's singing suggesting they are beyond curing. The characters are not completely one-dimensional villains. Jeb will vacillate between being a bully and showing glimmers of his humanity. The Emperor wants Gayle's voice for purely selfish reasons. Gayle said she could fix Little John inside. Gayle brings healing just like the Nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen's story. But this suggests that Gayle heals Little John by forgiving him; thus, allowing him to forgive himself for hurting Gayle and causing his sister's accident that killed her.
While Little John's family does not live in extreme poverty, they are poor and struggling at not making enough money to pay the rent. The death and funeral expenses of his sister has wiped out any savings and Nikki Loftin not only shows how poverty effects Little John's family decisions, but leads to insecurity, powerlessness, and susceptibility to violence in the community. Little John wants to do the right thing, but his family needs the money so badly that he intentionally breaks his promise to Gayle of never cutting down her tree or nest of refuge. In addition, Little John is so ashamed of his family's poverty that he breaks off his friendship with his best friend, Ernest.
The author presents some of the ugliness resulting in people's desperate need for money from the bruises on Gayle's arms and face to the whipping that Little John gets from his dad. The Cutlins take in foster children for the money only, not because they want to help or nurture children. When Little John gets beaten with a belt, his father doesn't ask Little John's side of the story; he is just angry about the money and believes the Emperor's side of the story. Money is always the priority for these desperate families; at the expense of character and doing the right thing. Later, the mom asks the dad why he's so hard on the boy and in a heartbreaking explanation the dad says it is the only way he knows how to parent. The physical abuse and harsh discipline might disturb some younger readers, but it is explained after-the-fact and there is no descriptive violence. I was most bothered by the Emperor coming across as a pedophile. He isn't, but the situation captures the difficulty of knowing when it is appropriate to take action as an adult or child. Little John should have talked to his dad about his suspicions. He does talk to the dad about the bruises on Gayle's arm and the dad agrees to let Little John spend time with Gayle. Even the adults don't take the right actions. Of course, his dad's job depends on him treading carefully and his dad can't cope with his daughter's death, much less whether or not his employer is a pedophile.
Little John struggles with the definition of saving people and being a man. He wants to atone for his mistake of causing his sister's death by saving Gayle, but realizes that he can't save her. He wants to protect Gayle from the Emperor, the Cutlins, and loss, but he fails miserably for the most part. The adults force him to compromise his morals for money, from the Emperor threatening to take away his father's job to his dad telling him to cut down Gayle's tree to save them from eviction. Ironically, Gayle loses her "nest" home at the expense of Little John keeping his. The Cutlins use stolen money to have Gayle's tree removed for a garden that will feed them. There is a cycle of violence surrounding money by the adults that disregards the feelings of Little John and Gayle and even Jeb. One reason Jeb is a bully is to try and have some power in his powerless life. This lack of authority reflects the nature of childhood. However, Little John realizes that he can make small differences when he stands up to the Emperor, "He had no power over me. He looked broken, kneeling there. As broken as Gayle. As broken as my dad."
Little John wonders what it is like to be a man and thinks of his dad and poverty and Gayle. He knows that his dad scrapes and bows to the Emperor even though he dislikes him. He doesn't want to be that way, but is forced to because his family needs a home. He knows that the only person who can give him work is the Emperor. However, when he asks for work, the Emperor asks him to have Gayle sing for him again. The first time he did this Gayle lost her voice and was devastated. Little John was ashamed that he used his friendship with Gayle to make her sing for the Emperor who gave him $500. When the Emperor asks a second time, Little John stands up to him and does what he should have done the first time. He says he won't have Gayle hurt again.
Little John wants to protect Gayle and while he is able to stand up to Jeb, his peer, throughout the novel, he learns how to stand up to powerful adults even if it means loss of money or home for his family or a whipping. In a nice scene that foreshadows the resolution, Little John tells Gayle she can't fix all the hurts and she says neither can he. In a beautiful parable called, "The Treasure Nest," at the end, Little John describes Gayle's singing that symbolizes him as a tree and her as a bird. They are both broken but find beauty in friendship and protection. Gayle teaches that, "Treasures don't come from the store, Little John." A subplot on Little John's friendship troubles with Ernest shows that he has learned that friendship is a "treasure" and that true friends forgive the mistakes of others.
Tree stumps symbolize Little John's (whose nicknamed, "Tree," by Gayle) growth internally. When Little John cuts down Gayle's tree, he gets sick over his betrayal of their friendship. He muses over the leftover stump a symbol of their injured friendship. The tree has not been completely dug up or burnt suggesting there is time to salvage the friendship. In another instance, Little John looks at a different tree stump that is in their yard - the one that killed his sister - and it painfully reminds him of her and how he caused her death when he jumped from the tree and his sister imitated him breaking her neck in the fall. His memories slowly turn from hating trees and himself to forgiveness. He is responsible for her death and must find a way to forgive his mistake. He's like the stumps. Broken and cut to the core, but from his friendship with Gayle, the singing nightingale, he can begin to heal. Little John looks at situations with a raw honesty that is moving and memorable. He refreshingly takes responsibility for his actions and admits when he is wrong. Forgiveness is a strong theme in this novel. Even the Emperor asks for Gayle's forgiveness, although he loses his voice as a consequence of his actions. When Little John climbs the tree to give Gayle the nest he made with his hair, he shows someone of great character that is willing to face his fears and live life in a positive way.
The writing is gorgeous in this book. "She nodded, her head bobbling like a heavy sunflower on a too-narrow stalk, and edged out a bit more on the branch. Her feet were bare, and dirty. Her toes were a thin as the rest of her, and kind of long - she used them to clutch the branch she was on just like a baby bird would." The contrast between poverty of the characters and the beauty of the singing helped balance what could have been a dark, depressing book. The author also shows the community trying to help Little John's family during their troubles by bringing them dinners and showing kindness. Amidst the desperation, hope shines forth. This rich and complex book has the elements of an award-winner that sings. Don't miss it.