We often think of authors as distant celebrities, but the truth is that more authors—even of very good books—are desperately working alone in the hope of sharing their vision with others. Here in the Inland Empire, we have many good authors doing just that. One, Gayle Brandeis, has written a lovely novel that would be a perfect choice when a teacher asks you to read about a culture you know little about.
The Book of Dead Birds is the story of Ava Sing Lo, the daughter of a Korean woman who was forced into prostitution on a U.S. Army base. The base was segregated and Helen serviced the African American men. She becomes pregnant with Ava and manages, through deceit, an escape to California.
The fact that Ava is a product of a forced sexual encounter with a stranger makes her a constant reminder of her mother’s shame. Racial prejudice makes her feel that she has no connections. In a first person narrative Ava tells the story of how she hopes to make a connection with her mother, whose pet birds she has been accidentally killing for years. (This narrative alternates with chapters on Helen’s life.) Finally, at 25, Ava, still unemployed after earning a Master’s Degree, decides that she will head out to the Salton Sea and help with rescue operations during the worst bird die-off the country has ever experienced.
At the Salton Sea Ava meets a man who takes a real interest in her; she learns to heal her own heart as well as her relationship with her mother. I felt that the subplot (in which prostitutes in the Salton Sea area are being murdered) wasn’t deeply connected to the main plot, but this doesn’t affectthe heart of the story. The Book of Dead Birds offers its reader a story both bittersweet and heartwarming. Winner of the Bellwether Prize (for fiction that addresses issues of social justice).