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02 April 2007 @ 12:42 pm
Winter Birds, Jim Grimsley  
This is the second book I've read by Jim Grimsley. The first was Comfort and Joy, which is actually a continuation of this story.

Winter Birds is about Danny, a young boy growing up in the rural south with his many brothers, a sister, his mother and abusive alcoholic father. He also has hemophilia. It sounds bleak, and it is not a happy funtime story, but the thing I like about Grimsley is that his prose is so very quiet and comforting, in this and even more so in Comfort and Joy, from which I may post a paragraph or two in a few days.

It is also interesting for being written entirely in second person (C&J is not), which I though would get tedious, but after a while I didn't even notice.

He often wanders by the River near his home, sometimes dreaming of the River Man and imagining he is an orphan or fighting lions.
Today is Thanksgiving and you are freed from school. You can lie in your bed of honeysuckle vine and dream all day beside the river. Walking there, you hug yourself with thin arms, your dark hair blown by the wind. Overhead the branches sway back and forth. At night when you lie awake in your bed you can hear the wind sing in their tops, and the sound makes you believe a person lives in each tree.

As you walk you dread the things you have learned to dread: your Papa, your special blood, anything that shakes it. You place each step carefully so you do not fall.

Round a curve in the path Queenie sniffs this way and that in the grass, swinging her bony head. Maybe she is smelling to see where your brothers have gone. She sees you and runs to you with her tongue trailing in the grass. River smell clings to her fur. You hug her close, hearing her heartbeat, stroking her soft brown coat. When she lifts her wet nose to be scratched you scratch it.

Her distended belly sways back and forth, heavy with the puppies she waits to have. You scratch the taut skin of her belly lightly, half-expecting it to make the sounds balloons make when you rub their sides. Delighted, she rolls on her back, tail thumping dirt. Her naked white belly is hairless and smooth, and you touch it gingerly. Puppies sleep under this warm skin. Queenie watches you as if she suspects this is the beginning of some new game. You say, "Don't worry, I won’t try to get them out before they’re done. I only wondered what colors they are."

In the hospital:
You slept and woke and finally did not wake, easing in and out of grayness. Sometimes you saw the shapes of faces, no longer caring to see more, feeling their presence as one feels the brush of fly’s legs. You stared into the wall behind Papa’s head, over Mama’s shoulder, into a place neither of them saw: a river, a gate, a long stairway; you were following someone, following music, following the bare back of a man whose face you might recognize if you could catch him and make him turn around . You hurried after him because you wanted him to give you something, you didn’t know what it would be.

Mama said, "Danny if you drink this cocola your mouth will taste better."

Papa said, "If you get better I'll buy you a little guitar."

Mama said, "Don’t be such a quiet little boy, talk to me."

Papa said, "He don't care, he's just going to lay there."

Mama said, "Darken the blinds again, so he can sleep."

Papa said, "It seems like if he's going to--if there's nothing we can do about it--it seems like we're going to pay a lot of money for him to lay here like this."

Mama said, "He can't help it."

Hiding under the house with his mother:
She recognizes you without relief or curiosity or even affection, with only a white look that makes you colder inside. You wonder if you should have come. The tears have dried to simple lines on her face, pale like scars. She breathes softly and watches you as if you were miles away. What you see in her eyes you don't understand, but you will remember the exact shape of the gaze as vividly always as you see it now, carried like a cold stone in your brain. She has turned her sight inward, far from you and Papa, far even from the dirt she squats in, clutching her arms.

You are frightened, you cannot move.

Her mouth forms some word you cannot hear.

"Is he still out there?" she asks hoarsely.

"Yes ma'am," you whisper.

She traces a curved line in the dirt. After a while she turns to you, and you understand she is coming back to you from somewhere, though you're not sure she wants to. "I don't know what to do," she says.

Spoilers in the comments.
ex_ederyn860 on April 2nd, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)
OMG I've read both these books! These are the ones with the circle house, right? Because the rooms are all connected so the mother runs through the house in a circle when her husband is trying to beat her. Then it turns out she's even more evil than he is when it comes to her children. Waaaaaah! And the second book is written from the POV of a doctor who winds up dating one of the twins who has a great singing voice but isn't too pretty, and it turns out he has a tragic secret now too...yadda yadda. I could talk about those books all day. They were great books! Depressing as all hell but fantastic reads.
The Rev: jimmaythe_reverand on April 2nd, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, the Circle House. They name all the houses: The Snake House, The Fish House, The Lighthouse, The Pack House, The Blood House....

I wouldn't say that she was more evil when protecting her children, but she stood up to him until she couldn't. There's one part that really gets me, the first time they run from him, when she's protecting her baby from her husband, and something happens to sort of snap them all out of it, their anger and fear alike, and she loses her fear entirely and just hands the kid to him and he's too startled to remember he's angry. It's just so honest.

In the second book Danny is much older. He works in a hospital, is HIV positive from all the blood transfusions, and dates a doctor who is really the main character. Having read the first book, you get the sense that the Doctor is Danny's River Man in the flesh.

He wasn't one of a set of twins, but Danny did have a younger brother who had hemophilia also, so that might be where you got the twin idea. And I don't remember it ever being mentioned that he was unattractive, but there is plenty of reference to his frail nature vs. the Doctor's large physique.

They are both wonderful, yes. And not plotty, really, neither of them. They just sort of move along and you follow, and there is not necessarily anything resolved but somehow that's okay.

Apparently I can talk about them all day, too!
ex_ederyn860 on April 2nd, 2007 10:16 pm (UTC)
Well, I didn't want to give it away, but what I meant by more evil when it came to her children was that it seemed more evil for her to rape them than for him to beat them. *nod nod*
The Rev: trentthe_reverand on April 2nd, 2007 11:56 pm (UTC)
You know I was confused by that part, I'm pretty sure he was just between them... not, you know, actually involved. But still... YES! That was pretty fucked up, but she must have been afraid for her life and Danny's.

That was another thing that intrigued be about this book. I have trouble reading stories about women in abusive situations, because I can't imagine staying for the first time, much less letting it get that far, and I just wonder at women who stay. But I really liked her despite any of that, I suppose because we see her through Danny's eyes, which are unfailingly sympathetic toward his mother.