A Boy Is Not a Bird

Edeet Rav­el, Pam Comeau (illus.)

  • Review
By – May 22, 2020

Chil­dren expe­ri­ence war direct­ly, but they also try to process its irra­tional cru­el­ties through the fil­ter of adult ratio­nal­iza­tions. Some­times, those ratio­nal­iza­tions are cal­cu­lat­ing lies, but oth­er times they are meant to pro­tect the vul­ner­a­ble. Edeet Ravel’s excep­tion­al nov­el tells the sto­ry of one Jew­ish child, Natt Sil­ver, who is caught up in the chaos of World War II-era Roma­nia and its suc­ces­sive occu­pa­tion by the Sovi­ets and the Nazis. Ravel’s deep respect for chil­dren is evi­dent on every page of this haunt­ing sto­ry, as she allows Natt to express all the ambiva­lence and con­fu­sion which take over his life dur­ing this ter­ri­fy­ing time. The book’s title is not mag­i­cal or myth­ic. It refers to Natt’s skep­ti­cism when his lov­ing father tries to con­vince him that, after the war, just as birds return to their flock, every­thing will return to nor­mal. Through­out the book, Natt is forced to com­pare the inter­pre­ta­tions of adults to his own encoun­ters with real­i­ty. The result is a com­pelling sto­ry which choos­es dif­fi­cult and ambigu­ous truths over com­fort­ing simplification.

In 1940, Natt’s home­land is a poly­glot mix of cul­tures. The coex­is­tence of eth­nic groups, although with some ten­sions, had been a fea­ture of Roman­ian soci­ety but then became a symp­tom of dan­ger. When the Sovi­et Union occu­pies the coun­try, as a result of the Hitler-Stal­in pact, Russ­ian becomes one more ele­ment of Natt’s uni­verse. He and his best friend Max had styled them­selves Mus­ke­teers,” trans­form­ing dai­ly events into imag­i­nary adven­tures based on the books which they loved. But soon, nego­ti­at­ing their way among dai­ly con­tra­dic­tions becomes a mat­ter of sur­vival. When Natt’s father is arrest­ed as an ene­my of the peo­ple,” all the choic­es that he and his moth­er make assume exis­ten­tial pro­por­tions. Although the father, whom he adores, had reas­sured Natt that war gives each per­son the chance to be a hero,” the boy learns that luck gov­erns every­thing, in con­tra­dic­tion to all his par­ents had taught him.

Natt’s first-per­son nar­ra­tion of events and his reac­tions to them are con­vinc­ing, and the author’s use of repeat­ed motifs and dra­mat­ic pac­ing are cru­cial. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the Russ­ian clas­sic which chron­i­cles the inter­ac­tions between char­ac­ters and over­whelm­ing world events, is cen­tral to Natt’s imag­i­na­tion. His new teacher, a Russ­ian Jew, is read­ing aloud from the nov­el to Natt’s class when their play­ground is sur­round­ed by Sovi­et sol­diers: Sud­den­ly, it’s as if we’re in the sto­ry. Right inside War and Peace.” Lat­er, as the res­i­dents of his town are deport­ed to Siberia and the Nazi inva­sion is immi­nent, his teacher reap­pears with a gift for him of Tolstoy’s nov­el. When Natt approach­es a Russ­ian guard for a drink of water in their tem­po­rary intern­ment cen­ter, he finds a moment of human­i­ty when the sol­dier shares his love of Tol­stoy with his young prisoner.

Ran­dom con­nec­tions have replaced the reli­a­bil­i­ty of facts in Natt’s life. His mother’s insis­tence on find­ing redeem­ing val­ue in the slight­est mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stance is both frus­trat­ing and com­fort­ing to him; even­tu­al­ly he has a night­mare in which he con­fronts her about her well-inten­tioned, but irra­tional opti­mism: We’re not lucky! We had a house, we had hors­es, we had a ware­house with chutes…Now I’m hun­gry and dirty and crawl­ing with bugs and the train smells like a sew­er.” War has exag­ger­at­ed all of the para­dox­es of a child­hood in which the nor­mal needs for both safe­ty and auton­o­my have become threat­ened. Rav­el flu­ent­ly weaves these uni­ver­sal truths into a nov­el embed­ded in his­to­ry, offer­ing young read­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence both aspects of Natt’s life.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an Author’s Note” explain­ing that the sto­ry is based on a real per­son from the author’s past as well as a sec­tion with addi­tion­al his­tor­i­cal information.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions