Posted by: Jeanie F | November 10, 2009

Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

It’s embarrassing to look back and realize how long it’s taken me to work my way through this not overly-long novel (448 pages). I’ve been sawing away at it for at least a month, allowing myself frequent sidetrips to other things – The Spirit of Service, Turn of the Screw, a variety of magazine articles and short stories. Contrast that to the day-and-a-half it took me to race through Michael Connelly’s latest thriller, Nine Dragons – well, I’ll put this self-reflection aside for another day!

There is really quite a lot that drew me INTO this book, a murder mystery placed in Oates’ fictional Sparta, New York. As is the case with many of her books, the setting is as much a “character” in this story as are the people. The citizens of Sparta live hard lives in country that Michael Lindgren from the Washington Post describes as ” the geography of urban decay — the rusted bridges, tangled back alleys and trash-strewn lots.” Against this backdrop it is impossible to imagine hope or redemption – we completely believe in their shabby lives of alcoholism, loveless sex, failed relationships. We’re not really surprised by the murder and its ensuing events – it feels predestined.

But Little Bird is more than a whodunit. The best and most interesting part of this book examines the terrible wake left behind when accusations are made but never resolved. The two families involved – the Krullers and the Deihls – are placed under the shadow of suspicion when Zoe Kruller is found savagely murdered. The remaining devastation tears all the survivors apart, most notably the teenage children of Zoe and of Eddy Deihl, one of Zoe’s lovers. Discovering who the real murderer is becomes secondary to the impact on the lives of these children who, with the doubt and uncertainty caused when their fathers become “persons of interest” in the murder, cling to their belief in their respective father’s innocence.

The novel’s title comes from an “old-time” song by the same name. It’s an apt metaphor for both the “low life” setting and the tragic aftermath of the murder. The final two stanzas say it all: 

 Fallen hearts and fallen leaves
Starlings light on the broken trees
Find we all need a place to land
There’s a little bird of heaven right here in your hand

So toss it up or pass it round
Pay mind to what you’re carrying around
Keep it close, hold it while you can
There’s a little bird of heaven right here in your hand

 So why, I have to ask, did I find Little Bird of Heaven so easy to put down? In spite of a first-rate story line and Oates’ usual fine writing, there were spots along the way where the pacing can only be described as glacial. Inner monologues went on a bit too long, external descriptions disrupted scenes where the action was just pulling me in. I struggled through the first half of the book because of this. Having said that, there was a point at which the story took over and propelled me to the end. My advice is to stick with it – while Oates doesn’t deal in “happy endings,” this one leaves the reader with both resolution and satisfaction.

Grade: B


  1. Great review! I haven’t heard of this book but it sounds pretty interesting.

  2. If you’re have to make detours from a novel, Henry James is definitely the way to go! He’s one of my favorites. I enjoyed your review and appreciate your putting me on your blogroll. A thousand thanks.

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