Bird on the Wing By Winifred Madison

Life as a weaver was the last thing Elizabeth expected when she ran away from home

Now, anyone well-read in girls’ fiction of the 60’s and 70’s knows that when you run away from home, your choices are “prostitute”, “drug addict” or “murder victim”. While this week’s book is not exceptionally written or even very interesting, it does get points for offering up a fourth option: maybe that big scary world out there is just full of harmless and helpful eccentrics who are really good at minding their own business.

The Plot: A year after 16-year old Liz’s parents have divorced, both have remarried and Liz and her younger brother have moved from Sacramento to Lincoln, Nebraska to live with their father. Lorene, Liz’s new non-specifically Southern stepmother, is unbearably tacky- she sticks American Flag decals on everything and serves instant pudding at every meal. She also has three young children of her own: 10 year old Patty, with whom Liz has a genuinely warm relationship; and the unbearable toddlers Cissie and L’il Joe, “unpleasant even at two, a little boy with a nose that always seemed to need wiping.”

Living in Lincoln since the beginning of the school year, Liz hasn’t made any friends or figured out how to fit in with the Midwestern classmates that she frankly looks down on as being boring and unsophisticated. She misses her friends in Sacramento, especially her boyfriend Rick, and especially-especially Rick’s bright red Porsche.

After her mother sends Liz a designer dress from California as special gift and Lorene insists that she take the hem down two inches (“Ah suppose they weah things like that in Califo’nia, but it’s pretty garish for aroun’ heah. And it’s too sho’t, honey, way too sho’t.”), Liz starts having nightly nightmares abound violently murdering her stepmother.

She is comforted by Patty, who at 10 is shy and worships Liz. Liz is very sympathetic, noting that Patty has a hard time “because Lorene, impatient with girls who read too many books, could be mean to Patty.”

The last straw in Lincoln comes when Liz’s father buys her tickets to see Buffy Sainte-Marie in concert, and Lorene “forgets” that is the night that she was planning on introducing her new husband to the church choir and hasn’t procured a babysitter:

“I’m going to the Buffy Ste. Marie concert, Lorene. Remember, I told you about it when I bought the ticket?”

“Not rilly. Honey, your fathah and I are goin’ out tonight. You knew that now, didn’t you? It’s a special party for the church choir.”

“So?”

“I was expectin’ you would baby-sit. After all, you never do go anywhere. I didn’t know about this concert.”

Elizabeth’s father seemed to be concentrating very hard on the casserole as though he didn’t want to be involved.

When her father refuses to back her up, Liz quietly forms a plan. After Lorene and her father leave for the night, she finishes washing the dishes and puts the kids to bed, saying a special good-bye to Patty, and packs her backpack, including her father’s fishing knife (for protection) and $100 out of Lorene’s sock-drawer (for unpaid back baby-sitting wages) and hits the road. She’s getting back to Sacramento one way or another.

For the sheltered Liz, getting out of Nebraska takes for-ever. At a truck stop in the middle of the night, she is only offered rides heading back towards Lincoln. While pondering if it’s a sign that she shouldn’t have left in the first place, another young woman walks into the truck stop and Liz’s life changes forever. Maija Hrdlka, slightly older and infinitely more street smart, instantly adopts Liz as a traveling companion and becomes her mentor and protector. Maija easily arranges a ride as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the two are off on an epic See America-type adventure.

Maija, a talented weaver, is heading to San Francisco in the hope of winning a prestigious commission for a tapestry for a government office building. Maija is also on the outs with her family- a second generation Czech immigrant, she clashed with her mother over her course of study and her choice to return to Europe to study weaving in Norway, France and Scotland.

With the exception of the first night, when Liz is picked up by a creepy redneck who drops her off in the middle of nowhere to teach her a lesson about being a girl, the strangers they encounter on the road are benign well-wishers: a lady rancher, a Spanish priest, and finally a traveling wig salesman who takes them all the way to Sacramento.

When Liz arrives at her mother and stepfather’s new house, they are welcoming, and not even that perturbed that she’s been missing for a week. Liz tries to pick up her life in California where she left off, but finds that things have changed in her absence, her group of friends has dispersed, and Rick has totaled the Porsche. She is surprised to find out that Rick is dating someone new, but more surprised when she realizes that she doesn’t really care.

And there is also the fact that her creepy new stepfather keeps trying to kiss her:

“Please, you mustn’t do that,” she whispered.

“Honey, we are related, you know. And I like having you around. Don’t you want to be friends?”

He kissed her and she broke away. “What would my mother think if she saw you?”

“Well, what difference would it make?”

GROSS! Clearly, this is not going to work out. She decides to go back to Lincoln and deal with Lorene and high school, as dreary a prospect as that sounds. But! At the last minute she has a brainstorm and exchanges her plane ticket to one to San Francisco! Because so far, being a teenage runaway has been an infinitely safer and easier prospect than living with your parents’ terrible choice of spouses.

She locates Maija in fairly short order, living in a rooming house in the Mission District and managing a Laundromat by day and working on a commissioned tapestry for a children’s hospital in her off-hours. Maija welcomes her with open arms and no questions, allowing her to stay rent-free and taking her on as an apprentice weaver.

The friendship between Liz and Maija is intense, to say the least. Liz comes off as a little obsessive and jealous- it seems like Liz might have a romantic attachment, but then the author awkwardly shoehorns in a boyfriend for her (he actually does accuse her of being a “dyke” when she decides not to move with him to Los Angeles) and has her inner-monologue about “how nothing in the world could take the place of a man.”

The other residents of the rooming house continue to mind their own business, even after Liz’s parents take out ads in the paper with her picture. Maija explains that they all have their own reasons for avoiding getting involved with The Law: Mrs. Adamek is running a dog-grooming business without a license; gay couple Boris and Pete get hassled by the cops for raising Boris’s son Nicholas together; Dora’s husband is in prison at San Quentin.

And Maija is no moony hippie-type either: she is a disciplined and diligent worker, who earns a pretty good living with her art, and expects Liz to seriously apply herself to her studies.

Of course, this idyll of benevolent social misfits has to come to an end. But the author tries to cram so many incidents into the narrative that when tragedy strikes, it seems almost like an afterthought: Maija is killed during a hold-up of the Laundromat.

Liz is adrift without her, but only briefly: Maija’s agent/boyfriend is impressed by the progress she has made in her studies and she finds a renewed sense of purpose in finishing Maija’s tapestry for the children’s hospital. With that work done, Liz chooses to return to Nebraska, deciding both that she has a better understanding of what makes Lorene tick (which kind of seems like a cop-out) and that she will enroll in the local university to formally study weaving (which doesn’t).

Sign it Was Written in 1974 Department: Pretty much the worst thing that will happen to you while hitchhiking across the country is that you’ll get some free wigs.

Hippie Hippie Flake Department: Maija’s friend is testing recipes in order to open her own bakery: “Marnie puts everything in it, wheat germ, molasses, sprouted alfalfa and all that. If we don’t like it, it’s because we’re spoiled and decadent.”

Learning Life Skills Department: The first time Maija sends Liz out to do the grocery shopping for the week, Liz spends all of the money on decorative soy sauce containers.

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2 Responses to Bird on the Wing By Winifred Madison

  1. Run away from home! You will be fine!

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