How can the words of the past give Birdie hope for the future?
Well, this another one where the cover-copy barely matches the actual content of the book: it’s sold to readers as being about a high school student who learns about the horrors of the Holocaust after her brother is implicated the vandalism of a local synagogue…
The Plot: …but, whoa, there is a whole lot more going on.
High school Junior Brigid (Birdie) Flynn is a rapidly lapsing Irish-Catholic living with her nightmare family in a housing project in East Boston. Her barely-literate parents are frequently physically abusive toward Birdie and her brother (who was flunking out of school even before he got picked up by the cops) and her oldest sister regularly returns home with her young daughter to escape from her own abusive husband, whom she was forced to marry after he knocked her up.
Birdie is the only member of the family that is at all academically inclined, and has a talent for writing that nobody is really encouraging: her mother forced her to write a letter to their landlord requesting that a Virgin Mary statuette be placed in front of the building to combat “rowdyism”.
When she learns her brother, Richie, was arrested, the entire dysfunctional family rushes down to the police station to bail him out, including her father:
“We’re meeting him there. He’s taking off from work.”
To all of this, Birdie had only one comment, which she muttered under her breath. She heard her mother say to Sergeant Costello, “I should wash her mouth out with soap.”
A representative from the synagogue, whose membership includes a large number of holocaust survivors, is waiting for them at the station to try to explain the gravity of the situation to the teenagers, but when an enraged Mr. Flynn arrives he tries to slug his son, but accidentally knocks down wife and daughter instead:
What a tangled-up, messed-up family. That is what Birdie thought each time she pictured the scene at the bottom of the station steps with her mother and Timmy sprawled and dazed, her father still cursing and trying to help his wife up. Somehow, Birdie had wound up standing next to Mr. Cohen, who just looked down at the tangled mess, shaking his head.
When the incident makes the police blotter of the Boston Globe, (which also employs Mr. Flynn as a truck driver) the Flynns’ find themselves fielding calls to their home, not from outraged citizens, but from the likes of the American Nazi Party, who want to recruit Richie.
Around the same time Birdie’s older sister, Lainie, moves back in with her daughter, Rhonda, and secretly takes a job selling Mary Kay cosmetics, earning money to divorce her horrible husband. Mrs. Flynn welcomes her back, but is less-than-supportive about her prospects:
“Oh, Laine,” Marge was studying a long piece of paper “Is this an order form?”
“But, Lainie, this looks difficult to do. Look, you have to figure tax and everything.”
“She can do it, Ma.”
“I don’t know, Birdie. She has to figure state tax, and what’s this commission column on items over six dollars and mailing charges? I don’t think Lainie can do this sort of higher mathematics.”
Birdie saw Lainie’s face start to change. It didn’t exactly droop. It just became less animated, and then still. The pallid, doughy skin seemed flaccid once more.
“She can do it. I’ll lend her my calculator.”
“I don’t know,” Marge said “It could be a real disaster.”
Despite all this, Birdie and her best friend Gloria are looking forward to summer jobs at Filene’s, where they intend to work their way up from the bargain-basement to the designer clothing on the 4th floor. But she soon finds herself stuck in the “Big Lady” department, selling unflattering culottes to pushy women, rethinking her career path.
And her opinion of her brother drops even lower when she catches him waiting in line for his turn with Phyllis, the town slut- although he later confesses he couldn’t get it up, which makes the reader wonder if part of Richie’s personal torment is that he’s gay; the issue is left unexplored.
Birdie embarks on a campaign to bring some culture into the life of her niece, Rhonda, a 4 year old television addict (Mrs. Flynn approves of The Flintstones, “It’s very educational- all about cave men.”) by taking her to the Boston Public Garden (she gets in trouble after Rhonda relates that one of the statues wasn’t wearing a fig-leaf) and the public library, where Birdie is captivated by an exhibit on Eli Wiesel.
Soon Birdie is obsessed with reading everything she can on the Holocaust. And I guess this is somehow supposed to relate to her family situation? While touted by the publisher as being the main point of the book, it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the story- Birdie will be arguing with her parents over their crushing their children’s hopes and dreams and then starts yelling about the gas chambers, which sort of leaves the reader as baffled as the parents.
Despite the parents constant discouragement, their children do all manage pretty impressive arcs of personal growth by the end of the story.
Richie has a chance encounter with a member of the synagogue that he vandalized, and although he is not given absolution, he really does realize the gravity of his actions, which motivates him to make himself a better person, joining the crew of a tugboat and studying vigilantly to become a master seaman.
When Lainie’s husband discovers his wife’s career and plans for the money, and that Birdie had been encouraging said plans, he first runs over her sample case with his car, then breaks into the Flynn’s house, threatening to kill Birdie. Mrs. Flynn finally steps up to aid her daughters, by threatening to throw a bottle of lye in the husband’s face. Astounded by her mother’s audacity, Birdie straight-up asks her if their father had ever beat her- her silence on the matter is extremely telling.
With Richie studying for his exams and Lainie having secured her divorce and worked her way up to district manager, Birdie is surprised to find herself at loose ends at the end of the summer, her job at Filene’s becoming more and more unsatisfying. Ultimately, it is her friend Gloria’s (much more functional) family that helps Birdie find a path forward: after helping Gloria’s mother edit her romance novel manuscript, Birdie gets up the nerve to approach the Globe about an internship.
While the best her father can offer is “You’re no slouch, Bird!” it at least seems like her generation is going to fare better than their parents.
You know what this book doesn’t have? Any romantic interest for the heroine. Or anyone else: Lainie’s husband is (obviously) a total nightmare, Birdie is disgusted by the way the local boys treat Phyllis, and the only other eligible bachelor on the scene is a local fishmonger who sexually harasses any potential customers.
So Unfair! Department: Lainie got grounded for two months for getting pregnant, Birdie gets grounded until she’s 18 for not believing in God.