Author: Nikki Loftin
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Publication Date: February 20 2014
Hardcover: 256 Pages
Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.
There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.
But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.
Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale’s Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): eARC (via NetGalley)
Why did we read this book: We first heard about the book when Smugglivus guest author Anne Ursu sang its praises back in December. We’ve been waiting to read it ever since.
There is a boy of twelve. He is as tall as many adults (but still young enough to be called Little John) and has been living under the weight of immense sorrow and guilt ever since his beloved young sister died in a terrible accident. They were playing together when she jumped off a tree branch and he wasn’t close enough to catch her. Now all trees are his enemies and he happily helps his gardener father to cut them down.
There is a family. A mother who has lost track of time and memory. A father who drinks his sorrows into stupor and spends more money than they can afford. Living under financial strain, under threat of home eviction, this family is torn apart by grief.
There is a King. Or rather, an Emperor. He has all the money in the world and he collects beautiful voices to soothe his own mind.
There is a little girl. She lives in a foster home where she is terribly mistreated. She can’t find her real family but they said that all she had to do is to find her special tree and build a nest and they’d find her. So she does.
One day the boy of twelve hears the little girl sing, her voice soaring from high atop a tree.
That encounter will change their lives.
Nightingale’s Nest is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story but so far removed from it to the point of being almost unrecognisable. It’s a tale of sorrow, of making mistakes and above all a beautiful story of friendship. It’s a story that is so painfully human and so real that not even the elements of magical realism make it less so.
The two kids that share the spotlight, Little John and Gayle are going through things that no little kid should ever have to. Little John is living under the strain of profound guilt which cannot be allayed with words or thoughts. His parents are stuck in their own personal hell of madness and of financial strain and are almost oblivious to his own pain. How do you even start mending those broken hearts?
This is where Gayle enters: and at first I was wary of the potentially problematic dynamics that could have arisen from the introduction of a “magical” child that would solve everything. I was glad to see that the development of the story is much more about friendship than salvation.
The relationship that forms between Little John and Gayle is so beautiful. Here is a boy with a good heart, who misses his little sister so much and who has been trying so hard to make right by his parents to no avail. He punishes himself by working hard, by not speaking with his best friends. Here is a little girl, saddened by her own loss, living in a house with a bully and who needs so much the love of a good friend. That sometimes Little John cannot be the best friend he wants to be is part of the main conflict within the novel as he is moved to make really really bad decisions concerning Gayle because of the constant pressure he lives under to be the “man of the house”.
As such, Nightingale’s Nest also thoughtfully reflects on poverty, power, gender dynamics and the question of masculinity as well as the desperate, bitter choices good people are moved to make when living under pressure. But it’s also about second chances, making amends and righting wrongs. And even if the ending might be too fantastical and neat, this is still a lovely story.
Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning its beautiful cover which features a little African-American girl. The thing is, nowhere in the book is Gayle’s skin colour described in detail. So I love to see the cover because it doesn’t automatically default to white. Kudos to the publisher.
There are some stories that steal a little bit of your heart when you read them. Sometimes you know it’s happening, right from the outset of the book, from the first sweetly beguiling note. Sometimes it happens all at once with great bravado. Sometimes, though, this is a subtle theft. You start the book, perhaps with some misgivings, perhaps with some uncertainty. But somehow, so many pages in, you discover the truth that your heart has been well and truly stolen by the sneakiest of thieves.
Such is Nightingale’s Nest.
When I started this book, I was expecting an overt fantasy novel – a story about a bird in the form of a young girl, a tale of magical curses, and evil emperors and the like. Nightingale’s Nest, however, isn’t quite like that at all. There is magic, but it’s of the subtle variety; there are villains but they aren’t unilaterally evil. Nightingale’s Nest is a story set in a poor small town in rural America, in a place where poverty and want have taken root. The magic here is quieter, and, yes, falls under the label of magical realism.
But that’s not really what Nightingale’s Nest is about. (Nor is it the reason I discovered a little piece of my heart was missing as a sniffled my way into work after finishing the book on the subway.)
No, Nightingale’s Nest is a story about mistakes, and forgiveness, and friendship. Like the pure notes of Gayle’s song, this book is sweetly melancholy, but ultimately hopeful and beautiful with its powerful message of redemption. I love so many things about this book (how it approaches and addresses traditional masculinity, what it means to our young protagonist to “be a man”, the undertones of grief and responsibility and duty to family) but I want to focus on just two things that Nightingale’s Song does so beautifully, in my opinion: the bonds of friendship, and the power of forgiveness.
Nightingale’s Nest is narrated by a twelve-year-old young man, who grapples quietly with his grief over the loss of his younger sister. He blames himself for her death, and for the way his mother and father are slowly falling apart – his mother to her own grief, his father to drinking and money troubles. Little John (who is not so little anymore, at least not in physical size thanks to a growth spurt) takes the weight of these troubles and suffers them alone. He tries to do the right thing – the “manly” thing, like his father always tells him to do – but in doing so he sacrifices his own morals, he isolates himself further, and he makes mistakes.
Through the friendship of the orphaned Gayle, Little John finds his voice. He questions the values of money and sacrifice and being a man, he learns that sometimes he isn’t completely alone. As helpless as Gayle might be (initially, I was a little skeptical of the book because I really am not a fan of stories in which a small magical female child must be Protected by a Boy), it’s really Little John who needs to feel loved and befriended. This is John’s story, and only when he’s able to allow himself to open up to others and forgive himself does the true magic occur.
To put it simply, I loved this book very much. It’s a sad, sweet story about growing up and being true to one’s heart, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you love Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs or The Real Boy, or Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, you will cherish this book.
Ana: 7 – Very Good and leaning toward 8
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Half Bad by Sally Green
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