Surgically removed and discarded as medical waste in her infancy, the wings adorning Prudence Eleanor Vilkas at her birth will remain only as scars on her shoulder blades until the day she meets Wheaton Jones, the boy with strange eyes who turns up two hours after Prudence and her mother move into a dilapidated shack in Los Vientos, Florida at the end of a long drive from Nashville, where they left Prudence’s father, Freddie. Wheaton picks up the words Prudence uses, counts the syllables in each sentence on his fingers, and was institutionalized shortly after starting kindergarten to cure him of visions and voices he alone perceives. Wheaton can see Prudence’s wings.
But it is not until the Old Man, Freddie’s father, comes into her life that Prudence learns that she is not alone. In every alternating generation of the Vilkas family, a woman with wings has managed to survive another horrific episode of Lithuania’s difficult history by walking on foot — instead of flying, though it is possible they could — to exile and returning whenever shifting sovereignty allows them back.
As Prudence, now an adult, an ornithologist at the Eastern Coastal Aquarium, makes her way to see the Old Man on his deathbed, the novel travels back to the story of his generation, all lost to the war. Saved and hidden by Jewish neighbors when the Red Army executed his parents and sisters, the Old Man — then known as Frederick — survived the Second World War by unceremonious conscription into German military service, delivering undisclosed documents between Nazi officers as a bicycle messenger. His youngest sister, Daina, the family pet, watched her sisters’ brutal murder before escaping to the forest, where she was found by a young Russian soldier fleeing his unit, determined to keep his winged companion alive against her own will.
Prudence’s final journey to her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn also summons memories of a family trip to their respective homelands when Prudence was sixteen, two years before Wheaton left without a trace and just after an accident at the pier, where Prudence would have drowned were it not for the apparition of a woman with wings just like hers — a woman whose image haunts the work of an artist in Vilnius who photographed her in a Soviet jail cell before the KGB dispatched of the nameless angel.
Coping with a heartbreak that’s lasted her over a decade and the approaching loss of her beloved grandfather, Prudence surrounds herself with the people and figures who transformed into her family only at the cusp of her adulthood, when she began to feel the weight of the vanished wings that only her missing best friend could ever see.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.