Hibernia's mother left her and her father -- reverend of the True Vine Baptist Church in Elmira, New York -- to follow her dream to be a jazz singer in New York City. Stuck singing in the church choir (for the moment) Hibernia is making plans for a similar career. Willie's drunken father burned his hands beyond repair, destroying Willie's dreams of becoming a boxer. Otis' parents died in a fiery collision with a hay truck. Willie and Otis have been living at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans, under the affectionate care of an older white woman, Lila Weiss. It's 1937.
The radio plays an important role in the lives of all three children. Bernie listens to jazz on the sly, but realizes that her father is also secretly listening -- following the fights of the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis. Otis and Willie (and Mrs. Weiss) are big boxing fans,and Otis' most prized possession is his father's old Philco radio. The story is told from the perspective of each of the three children, who eventually meet when Bernie's choir performs for the orphans in the Mercy Home. They avidly follow Louis' comeback -- from his surprise June 1936 defeat at the hands of Max Schmeling to his title fight a year later against Gentleman Jim Braddock. We grow to understand what an important figure Louis was to African Americans during this time. Like Joe -- Bernie, Willie and Otis have had to fight back from disappointment and loss.
Although I enjoyed getting to know the three children in this story, the novel's episodic nature made it difficult for me to really attach to them in any way. I just flitted in and out of their lives without truly connecting. Sadness and difficulties were suddenly resolved, most particularly when Bernie's father has a change of mind about her ambitions to sing beyond the church choir. At times, the children all seemed to stand for something -- Bernie is sassy and opinionated, Willie is angry and withdrawn, Otis cheerful and optimistic. The title metaphor is explained several (i.e., too many) times: "Even a bird in a box can get free."
The best part of the novel, I think, is the recreations of the voices, stories, and even snippets of the music that come out over the radio. They so authentic and interesting, and Pinkney's research is so thorough, that the era does come to life. I just don't feel that the characters in the story were quite as lively.
Three narrators share the reading: Bahni Turpin (heard memorably here), S'von Ringo, and J.B. Adkins. (I think that Ringo portrays Willie and Adkins Otis.) I've never heard either of the two men read (although Mr. Google leads me to the [unsupported] conclusion that they are both part of the Los Angeles music scene), but their inexperience shows. Turpin's natural reading, the expressive way she uses her slightly hoarse voice, and her ability to portray characters using other voices simply outshine the two men. Their sections sound awkward, like they are fundamentally uncomfortable reading out loud.
I particularly love when Turpin voices an African American adult laying down the law to young kids. There's a power and uniquely black inflections that make even this middle-aged white woman sit up and take notice. I liked it when she portrayed Grandmother Johnson and here when she voices Bernie's father. Turpin's also very good as the announcers calling Joe Louis' fights, and the other radio voices. She understands the rhythms of this kind of speech, understands that the sound and the delivery are different.
On top of my general sense of meh about this book and audiobook, I'm wondering how many kids are going to want to read it. The history is kind of obscure, the narrative jumps around, not a whole lot happens plot-wise, and the characters are kind of stock-ish. I like the cover (except that Hibernia looks like she has two noses), but I'm not sure many children will stick with it.
[The only image of Joe Louis in Wikimedia Commons is this one taken from the Library of Congress' Van Vechten collection.]
Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Narrated by Bahni Turpin, S'von Ringo and J.B. Adkins
Listening Library, 2011. 4:55