White Bird: A Won­der Story 

  • Review
By – October 10, 2019

Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture for young read­ers reflect an inter­nal ten­sion: is the work specif­i­cal­ly about the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish people’s near-anni­hi­la­tion, or, more broad­ly, about the choice between col­lab­o­ra­tion and resis­tance when out­siders are con­front­ed with attacks on a mar­gin­al­ized group? In her works, Won­der and Aug­gie and Me, R.J. Pala­cio exam­ined the issues of bul­ly­ing and dif­fer­ence through the lens of dis­abil­i­ty, using her autho­r­i­al voice to direct­ly encour­age empa­thy. In White Bird, she has writ­ten and drawn a pow­er­ful graph­ic nov­el, con­tin­u­ing her explo­ration of vic­tims, per­pe­tra­tors, and bystanders, this time under the con­di­tions of Nazi-occu­pied France. An ambigu­ous tan­gle of sur­ren­der and resis­tance char­ac­ter­ized the population’s response to the Ger­mans’ assault on their coun­try and on their Jew­ish neigh­bors. Out of this moral con­fu­sion, Pala­cio has cre­at­ed unfor­get­table char­ac­ters whose suf­fer­ing and despair par­al­lel their strengths and deter­mi­na­tion. The book’s title and epigraphs come from Jew­ish Amer­i­can poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose series of Ele­gies” was inspired by the dis­lo­ca­tions of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Palacio’s nov­el, itself an ele­gy for those lost, is a trib­ute to sur­vivors; humans may be trapped like birds or soar to freedom.

The book begins with an acces­si­ble intro­duc­tion. Julian, whose back­sto­ry Pala­cio intro­duced in Aug­gie and Me, is video chat­ting with his grand­moth­er in France, ask­ing her to help him with a school project about his fam­i­ly his­to­ry. At first, she is hes­i­tant, but then she resolves to share with him all which she had kept to her­self over the years. There is noth­ing con­trived about this nar­ra­tive frame. The under­state­ment of her words may be due to her reluc­tance as a grand­moth­er to dis­cuss suf­fer­ing as well as the speech pat­terns of a non-native speak­er of Eng­lish. Pala­cio and Czap’s art­work is as sub­tly evoca­tive as the text, por­tray­ing an ele­gant old­er woman whose lined face and dig­ni­fied dress give her qui­et author­i­ty. Through­out the book, line and col­or of vary­ing inten­si­ty match with words rang­ing from poet­ic to mun­dane, pro­duc­ing a qui­et­ly stun­ning impact.

Julian’s grand­moth­er, Sara Blum, nar­rates her life sto­ry, begin­ning with a fairy-tale account of accom­plished par­ents and a life of com­fort­able afflu­ence in a town so love­ly that it seems myth­i­cal. When her class­mates ridicule their school­mate Julien, a polio sur­vivor, she does not active­ly par­tic­i­pate nor does she con­demn their cru­el­ty. Soon enough, the fact that she is a Jew will make her the object of even more dehu­man­iz­ing attacks. At every point in the nar­ra­tive, Pala­cio refus­es to draw sim­plis­tic con­clu­sions or to sug­gest that vic­tims must be moral­ly per­fect. Sara’s devel­op­ing rela­tion­ship with Julien is shad­ed with nuance as it is both the sto­ry of two teenagers’ deep­en­ing attach­ment to one anoth­er and a por­tray­al of the hor­ri­fy­ing con­text of their cir­cum­stances. In some pan­els, they talk and laugh togeth­er in a pri­vate world of deep com­mu­ni­ca­tion while in oth­er dra­mat­ic seg­ments, the cru­el­ty of their tor­men­tors intrudes in vio­lent imagery. There are fan­tas­tic scenes of vibrant col­or where the tran­scen­dence of their fate seems a real pos­si­bil­i­ty. At the same time, high­ly detailed allu­sions to the peri­od, includ­ing news­pa­per head­lines, sup­port the story’s his­tor­i­cal accuracy.

In addi­tion to an Author’s Note,” the book includes exten­sive his­tor­i­cal back­ground mate­r­i­al, lists of resources, and a rich­ly detailed Glos­sary.” Lit­er­ary crit­ic Ruth Franklin offers an insight­ful After­word,” plac­ing the nov­el in the con­text of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. All of the addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al pro­motes the idea of stand­ing up against oppres­sion, no mat­ter the tar­get, while also focus­ing on the unique expe­ri­ences of the Jew­ish peo­ple and on those who chose to pro­tect them.

Although a few of the images might be intense for younger read­ers, White Bird is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and there is no upper age lim­it for this dis­tinc­tive and pro­found work.

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.

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