Review by Deb Czajkowski
To say that today is a difficult day for Emma Hazelton would be the proverbial understatement. Today Joseph Barlow ─ Grandpa Joe to Emma─ was buried. Emma’s parents divorced when she was young, after which her father moved to California. Since then, Emma spent most of her non-school hours with Grandpa Joe, arguably making Grandpa Joe the most important male in Emma’s life. So, yes, today is a hard day for Emma.
But on this very day, 12 months ago, Emma buried her four-year-old son. Joey died from a rare genetic disease, paralyzing Emma on the day he died and still immobilizing her today, one year later. That’s the “proverbial understatement” part of the difficult day.
One may argue that life still goes on for the living. Emma’s husband, Noah, though deeply saddened by his son’s death, has moved on ── to the point where he is talking about trying for another child. In Emma’s world that is SO not in the realm of possibilities. Not just today, but ever! Doesn’t Noah understand that they both carry a genetic gene that created a child born with only the ability to breathe and pre-destined for an early death? How can he ask her to do this again? To carry and give birth to another disabled child that she must daily watch slowly die?
How quickly Emma’s outlook on life turned from hopeful to helpless. Is her future truly to be so dismal? Childless and husbandless? Because isn’t setting Noah free the right thing to do, so that he can marry someone else and have the family he wants? The one she can’t give him?
To distract herself from the fateful future realities that she envisions, Emma begins a genealogy search for the familial link to Joey’s disease. An old wedding photograph of her great-grandparents plays into her search in an unexpected way, giving her a key that unlocks more than one door ─doors that Emma didn’t even know existed!
You may have noticed above that I delineated only one character ─Emma Hazelton─ from author Ella Joy Olsen’s novel Where the Sweet Bird Sings. That’s because this whole novel is really Emma’s story, and everyone else in the book primarily facilitates her journey. In Emma’s life, Olsen beautifully braids together three strands: 1. Grief from losing a child; 2. Genetic diseases; and 3. Genealogy ─the potential for hidden secrets and surprises. Three separate facets are cleverly combined into one piece, one journey, one life. Emma’s journey. Emma’s life.
Historians study the past for many reasons, one being that we can often forecast the future from the past. In a very real way, that was true for Emma. By looking into her family’s history, she gains knowledge and information that answer unspoken questions and satisfy a heartbreaking yearning. It gives her hope again for her future in a unique and unforeseen way.
Finding hope and sweetness in your life in not always easy. One place to find them both is Where the Sweet Bird Sings. Listen! Do you hear it? A Sweet Bird is singing just for you: Read me!
Deb’s Note: Where the Sweet Bird Sings is Ella Joy Olsen’s second novel. Her first novel is Root, Petal, Thorn. It is not at all necessary to read her first novel before reading this novel. However, if you have read Olsen’s first novel, connecting parts of Where the Sweet Bird Sings will be more meaningful to you. Be hopeful. Be happy. Enjoy.
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Twelve Things About
WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS
By Ella Joy Olsen
2) The initial premise behind Where the Sweet Bird Sings is admittedly sad. Emma and Noah Hazelton have recently lost their young son to a rare autosomal recessive genetic disease, called Canavan Disease. It’s one of the Ashkenazi Jewish Genetic Diseases, and is similar to Tay-Sachs. Both Emma and Noah carry one copy of the mutated gene, but are both are symptom free.
3) Because Canavan Disease is so rare, many couples don’t anticipate, or aren’t tested for a genetic predisposition. Such is the case for Emma and Noah. The book begins with Emma wondering how this disease appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to affect their child. She is compelled dig down to the roots of the condition, so to speak. So yes, there are some heartbreaking scenes…but the book is ultimately about hope and cobbling together a family from many places.
8) The title of the novel, Where the Sweet Bird Sings, is a nod to the concept of family trees. So, where does the sweet bird sing? In a tree, of course. Actually, the title is a riff from a line in a Shakespearean sonnet, “Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang”. I think the cover art riffs on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Both fantastic literary references.
9) My main character, Emma, learns much about life at her beloved Grandpa Joe’s side. Many of the textural details of their relationship I stole from my own relationship with my Grandpa Ralph. The Butter Rum lifesavers, the hours of Solitaire he’d play at the kitchen table, the out of date mid-century modern home.
10) There is an intense hospital scene in the book. I spent a fair amount of time in the hospital having my entire large intestine removed (but that’s another story), so I felt I could write about the hospital experience authentically. Even still, I sent the manuscript on to my good friend, Talli, who is an Emergency Room nurse to get all of the details right. I named the nurse in the book after her, as a thank you.
11) I love to name a character or two after someone who helps me tremendously in the writing process. In Root, Petal, Thorn, Nathaniel is named after the son of one of my best readers. It’s the least expensive, and most lasting, way to say thank you.
12) I love to dress thematically for my book launch parties. I had a gorgeous “rose” dress for the launch of Root, Petal, Thorn. Now I’m on the hunt for a fabulous dress featuring a sweet bird singing. I may have to settle for a hat…
About the author:
Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.
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