Background Reading for My Novel: “Winter Birds” by Jim Grimsley

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Winter Birds is the third book I have read this year by Jim Grimsley and like the previous works this was a definite winner. Comfort & Joy was the first book of his I read and it traced the meeting and eventual loving relationship of two men from completely different backgrounds. Ford McKinney comes from an old-monied Savannah family and like previous generations is a successful doctor. Dan Crell is a hospital administrator working in the same hospital as Ford who comes from impoverished rural North Carolina roots. Comfort & Joy hints that there is a dark ugly side to Dan’s family history but leaves the reader wondering what it is. Because I enjoyed Comfort & Joy so much and read that Grimsley’s first novel Winter Birds was the story of Dan’s childhood I quickly added the book to my To Read list.

Winter Birds is a mere 200+ pages and one that can easily be finished in a day if the reader is so inclined. The bulk of the story takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Ironically enough I finished reading it on Thanksgiving Eve. The author uses an interesting second person POV for the story, suggesting that Dan or Danny as he is called as a boy is viewing the story in his mind probably as an adult. He and his four siblings live with their parents and family dog in incredible poverty in the rural South. The father lost an arm in a farm accident and from that point forward becomes a cruel, abusive, drunken monster whom everyone in the family fears. In the longest chapter in the book, we learn the history of the family’s routine movement from one poor home to the next (a total of 7 in Danny’s brief 8 years at this point) to which he and his older sister Amy Kay have assigned appropriate names; the Snake House (snakes everywhere), the Fish House (formerly a fish store), the Ice House (only one small heater in the house), etc. The last home is the Circle House since it is circular and one door opens to the next and it is here that the story both begins and ends. The design of the house helps to add to the book’s heart-pounding finale.

This is a very painful, terrifying story to read and a sad reminder of the all too common incidence of extreme abuse both physical and emotional that far too many women, children and animals endure on a daily basis. At one point Danny reflects, “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up, no matter how loud he yells. Except then I’d be scared to wake up and see what he did when I was asleep.” The book begins fairly slowly but by the half way point the pace picks up dramatically building to a horrific conclusion. I could not put the book down for the last 80 pages even though it was way past my bedtime. Part of the suspense of the novel is reading moments of terror followed by calming relief, but the calmness has a lingering sense that more evil will soon follow. The reader just does not know what form that evil will take and just how far the madness of Danny’s father Bobjay will go.

I have read that this story is at least partly autobiographical. I can only hope for Grimsley’s sake that there is more fiction that fact in this his first novel. Writing this must surely have been a cathartic experience for the author. American publishers initially rejected the work, regarding it as too depressing and dark and for many years it went unpublished. Bear in mind self-publishing 20 years ago was unlike now fairly uncommon.  Only after being published in Germany did the reading public begin to appreciate what a phenomenal book it was. Eventually two years later it made its American debut and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1995.

Like the other books of his I have read, especially Dream Boy, this is anything but a feel-good work of fiction. Oh but it so worth it. I am so glad I had the good fortune to stumble upon Grimsley’s work this year. He is an amazing author and one I hope to I encounter again in my readings.

UPDATE: I just finished re-reading the review I wrote earlier this year of Grimsley’s book Dream Boy. “Enticing, entrancing, powerful, moving, violent, tragic, sparse, brilliantly crafted and executed, immensely satisfying” was how I described it. All of those words apply as well to this work.

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