Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein is an eleven-year-old living with her family on Cape Cod in the ‘70s going through the pangs of growing up and yearning for independence. But when her mother, a professional dancer estranged from her immigrant parents falls ill, everything changes. Chirp’s psychiatrist father is over- whelmed, and it’s up to Chirp and her older sister to hold their family together.
Chirp finds solace in nature and bird watching, and her knowledge of the habits of birds often turns into an analogy for the chaos unfolding in her own life, hence the novel’s title.
As the only Jewish family in their community, the Orenstein girls are already used to feeling on the outside, and through Chirp’s empathetic eyes we’re introduced to her colorful cast of friends: Joey, the boy across the street who comes from a difficult family and is often scared to go home, and Dawn, a classmate of Chirp’s who struggles with learning issues. Chirp has lived her life on the outside, and her unique perspective makes her a compassionate narrator, wise beyond her years.
Though Judaism is in no way a main focus in the book, it does provide a background for the Orenstein family, particularly as Chirp learns what it means to her to be Jewish in comparison to her immigrant mother, and in a community and era in which she’s forced to face anti-Semitism. Readers who feel that their Jewishness makes them different will relate to Chirp’s experiences.
Written for ages ten and up, Ehrlich’s debut novel is a beautifully written account of a young girl’s resilience. Chirp is adventurous, sensitive and quirky — a nuanced character with whom the reader can empathize deeply.