Growing up, I could not get enough of historical fiction and books set in a time past. Any book that featured two girls falling in love was also irresistible to me. So when I heard about Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin, a young adult lesbian coming-of-age story set in the 1920s, the eager, history-loving 15-year-old in me just had to read it.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is Griffin’s first young adult novel, which might be why the narration has a more mature tone unlike many books for young adults in which authors tend to talk down to their audience or follow a more predictable pattern in fear of readers losing interest. Set in Excelsior, Minnesota, a real lakeside resort town, the novel follows 16-year-old Garnet Richardson who is feeling trapped by her life back home when she is sent off to Excelsior to stay with her father’s cousin, the uptight, snooty Mrs. Harrington and her rude, disinterested daughter, Hannah. While there, Garnet pushes the limitations set by her strict aunt, getting a job in a hat shop and befriending a free-spirited flapper named Isabella.
Although the relationship between Garnet and Isabella is at the heart of the novel, there is so much more going on; it isn’t just a love story. From the beginning, it is clear that the main character’s life is full of forced deception when her mother claims that she is sending her away so she won’t catch polio. There is a telling bit of narration at that point in the first chapter where Garnet tells the readers,
“At sixteen, I was hardly at risk for polio, but the real reasons for my going were among the many things unsaid between us…”
Between her father’s strange behavior and aloofness to her mother’s insistence on pushing lady-like behavior onto Garnet and planning her future wedding to a boy from school, it is clear that everyone in the Richardson is living by a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
One of the most intriguing elements that comes from this life draped in secrecy and unspoken rules is Garnet’s obsession with birds. They represent the freedom she longs for, and she is completely obsessed with them, constantly researching and observing them. Each chapter of the book is named after a different bird, and each bird represents a new stage of Garnet’s journey to find herself behind the wall of deception built by her family, her society, and even herself.
My favorite thing about this book is that Griffin manages to convey the stress so many teenagers feel when they realize that the lives they want for themselves do not match up with the lives their parents want for them and that they will have to find their own way. This experience is especially familiar to teenagers who experience same sex attraction. It is stressful and feels like the hardest thing in the world, and when you have gotten over that hump, things aren’t the same, and sometimes they’re a little bit broken, but there is a feeling of freedom and hope and the idea that in time, what is broken can be rebuilt into something better. And of course, nothing is certain, which makes it seem like anything is possible.
With all of the complicated conventions and messes of real life, Griffin manages to make the world seem a bit more poetic and beautifully synchronized for her main character. Her style has a sense of ease that makes the novel easy to get lost in without falling into the formulaic predictability of so many young adult novels. I finished the book in a two hour sitting and felt a sense of closure and satisfaction that comes with the delightful combination of an intriguing plot and solid writing.
I think Molly Beth Griffin’s novel Silhouette of a Sparrow might just be the best lesbian young adult novel I’ve ever read. I don’t say that lightly. It has everything I could hope for: effortless yet beautiful writing, an authentic and lovable young heroine, a subtle and moving romance, an environmentalist sub-plot—honestly, what more could you ask for? I think, though, that what I appreciated the most about this book is that, while the romance is cute and sexy and authentic and great, it wasn’t the focal point of the novel. Rather, it’s the character development of the protagonist, Garnet, that Griffin is focused on throughout. I would be the first to admit that the romance was my favourite part, but I am also really pleased to read a book about a young woman whose interests are diverse. I think too often, especially in young adult books, even queer women characters continue to be defined by their romantic relationships.
Garnet is a strange and interesting mixture of artist and ornithologist (someone who studies birds). She’s rebellious by 1920s standards, but Griffin resists the urge to make her so modern as to disturb the carefully constructed historical accuracy of the book, which deals thoughtfully and realistically with issues surrounding class, gender, race, and sexuality. For example, Griffin writes about Garnet’s prejudice and preconceived notions about African-Americans at the same time that she explores the friendships that occur between working class white and black folks. It would have been tempting to pretend a young middle-class white woman at that time wouldn’t have been raised in an explicitly racist environment, especially if you want modern readers to sympathize with her. Griffin, however, resists that temptation and I think this strategy is an honest acknowledgement of racism and a much braver approach than presenting a historically inaccurately rosy picture of racial harmony.
Okay, I have to talk about the romance a little bit, especially since it has a classic romantic ‘caught in the rain’ moment, which is my favourite:
“I looked over at Isabella—those perfect lips, that short hair starting to dry with little tufts sticking up at funny angles, those boyish clothes all rumpled and soaked. I wanted to tell her secrets I hadn’t even told myself yet.”
Ah, that moment just before you kiss, when you know it’s about to happen, and you’re really excited but kind of terrified and it makes you feel like an entirely new person but wholly yourself at the same time? Griffin does a great job of capturing their teenage romance and of painting Isabella as an enticing, rebellious, and sexy young woman, yet also a flawed, complex human being.
As great as Isabella is, though, it’s Garnet’s personal journey that is really the star of this novel. Revelations such as this one border on the philosophical:
I looked closely at my edges, my boundaries, the slightly elongated lines that set me apart from lake and sky and island and bird and boat. I looked closely, pretending that I knew nothing about the girl I saw, pretending that she was some beautiful creature whose borders contained something worth holding in—something unique and extraordinary, something worth saving. I looked closely, the way I’d taught myself to look at birds, the way I’d learned to look at Isabella, and I saw myself. Then those scissors were cutting after all, as I snipped out my own image. I ignored the small ripples of the water and traced the lines that separated me from the world, and the lines that fit me into that world like the piece of a puzzle.
This passage actually reminded me in some strange way of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir; I might go as far as to say that Silhouette of a Sparrow is as inspiring, insightful, and beautifully written as Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?—albeit a fictional, young adult version. From me, the praise can’t get much higher than that. Please, go pick up this book!
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin is the story of Garnet, a teenage ornithology enthusiast who spends a transformative summer in a lakeside town. Set in 1926, Silhouette of a Sparrow combines captivating historical detail with realistic characters and emotions while keeping it all on a believable, relatable scale. I was drawn in immediately by the writing, which has a unique voice without edging into caricature. Garnet is very relatable: she considers herself to be a regular girl, even plain, but any threat of the boredom that sometimes accompanies these types of characters is averted by her intricately described interests. She’s passionately in love with birds, and she notices them everywhere, cutting silhouettes of them out of paper because her mother approves of that hobby over her childhood outdoor explorations.
Garnet has to navigate several things during her summer in Excelsior, Minnesota: the relatives she’s staying with consider her to be poor and low-class in comparison to themselves, but they have their own secrets; she left behind her father, a veteran who came home unable to adapt to life away from the war, and her mother, who is desperately trying to keep the family together; Garnet takes a part-time job in a shop, confronting both the bias against working women and environmental conservation issues that are close to her heart; and her drive to be independent and enjoy her last summer before graduating (and marrying) leads her to meet Isabella, a dancer who flaunts numerous social conventions. All of the subplots wind together to make a full story, and none of them are left hanging or unfinished.
Garnet’s developing relationship with Isabella is one of the highlights of the story for me (I admit I equally adore all the bird imagery, which has tendrils running through the whole book). Their courtship progresses slowly and sweetly. Garnet and Isabella get to know each other gradually, each revealing their fears and hopes as they grow more comfortable with each other. I love that Garnet doesn’t consider her romantic feelings for Isabella to be wrong – she’s worried about what her family would think, but she seems just as concerned that Isabella’s reputation, instead of her gender, will be the cause of the disapproval. Another thing that satisfies me with this novel is that the relationship between Garnet and Isabella isn’t the main focus – Silhouette of a Sparrow is about Garnet’s development from someone who doesn’t know what she wants to someone who does, and who finds within herself the strength to go after her dreams. Her relationship with Isabella is integral to this development, but it isn’t the core of the story. It’s a lesbian romance not simply for the sake of romance, but as part of the lives of what feel like real people.
With a cover as strong as Silhouette of a Sparrow‘s, I immediately have high expectations for the story within. And although the cover gives me a bit of a creepy vibe that I don’t get from the book itself, the story definitely lives up to my expectations of quality. Silhouette of a Sparrow takes place in the 1920s, and the protagonist, Garnet, is doing her best to navigate the practically Victorian values of her family and the rapidly changing, flapper culture of 1920s America. It is interesting to compare the setting of this book to Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude, which takes place in 1920s France. The dialogue of the characters could pretty easily be spoken in current times, which sometimes made me forget about the time period, but ultimately I think kept it from seeming too old-fashioned or gimmicky.
I loved Garnet as a character. She is very believable, and I really felt for her struggle to stay true to herself as well as her family. I think often we value individualism so much that we can be dismissive of people or characters who may be willing to sacrifice some of their freedom in order to be loyal to their family, but I thought Garnet’s struggle was portrayed very sympathetically, without casting her mother as a villain for wanting Garnet to get married and help support them.
I also really liked the ongoing bird theme of the book. Garnet cuts out silhouettes of birds she sees: a suitably feminine way to pursue her passion for ornithology. Each chapter is named after a bird with the corresponding silhouette above the chapter title. That bird is one that relates to a theme or a character in that chapter, and this is skillfully incorporated without, again, seeming like a gimmick. Garnet’s hobby of cutting out silhouettes is also used artistically later on as a metaphor for her attempt to find the edges of herself, to determine where she ends and her family, obligations, etc begin.
The love story is also really sweet, though really more of a subplot, in my opinion–as emily m danforth would say, this is about Garnet’s coming of gayge, not coming out. Garnet falls for a flapper girl, Isabella, who is beautiful, mysterious, and shows Garnet new possibilities for her life. [spoiler] I appreciated the realistic ending, as well, which emphasized that although Garnet and Isabella played an important role in each other’s life at that time, that doesn’t mean that they are now going to live happily ever after together. I liked that Griffin left it pretty open about whether they will end up back together or not. [/spoiler]
I haven’t even really mentioned what I usually consider the most important factor in a book: the writing. Most of the writing is pretty straight forward and furthers the story without distracting me from it, which is all I really ask for in a book. Often, though, the writing is downright poetic. Take the opening lines:
I was born blue. Life ripped me early from my safe place and thrust me into the world. It was all so astonishing I forgot to breathe.
But the puffed-up robin that sang outside the window of the birthing room came early too, that March of 1910, and just in time. He flew north before the spring came so he could sing me into the world. His song said Breathe child, this life was meant for you. When I finally let out my first scream I flushed red as that robin–red: the color of life, blood, love, and fury. At that moment I earned my name, Garnet, after the deep red stone that’s meant to bring courage.
I kept having to stop to scribble down quotes I wanted to post later on the Lesbrary tumblr.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is, obviously, a keeper, and I will be adding it to the shortlist of lesbian teen books I can recommend with no reservations. I hope to see more from Molly Beth Griffin soon.