Review: The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner
Flatiron, 2020. 294 pp. $26
During the summer of 1941, fortune chews up and spits out the Chodorów family, Jews living in a rural Polish town. The Germans arrest most of Róża’s relatives and shoot her husband, Natan. Barely escaping with her five-year-old daughter, Shira, she throws herself on the mercies of Henryk and Krystyna Wiśniewski, Christian neighbors who are very frightened themselves. But their reluctance is just half the problem. The only hiding place they can offer is the barn, unfortunately sited near a busy road, and the Wiśniewskis have their own children, naturally curious, liable to blurt out the secret to the wrong people, as young children are.
But very young children, like Shira, don’t keep quiet at all, and Róża’s at her wits’ end to entertain her daughter in complete silence. She spins a tale about a girl forbidden to make a sound, and how a yellow bird sings for her, all that’s in her head. Since Róża’s a musician — her whole family was musical — she’s not surprised that Shira has notes weaving through her mind like a constant, melodic tapestry. Soon she realizes that Shira may even be a prodigy. What a powerful image: This innocent child, who loves music and has a rare talent for it, can’t understand that if she opens her mouth to sing, there are evil men who will kill her or betray her to the killers.
What’s more, even to have hidden safely that long has resulted from pure happenstance — and lust. At first, Henryk told Róża that mother and child could hide for one night only. But his decision changes, because Krystyna takes a shine to little Shira, and Henryk takes Róża nightly, climbing up the ladder to the loft and using her. Though the Wiśniewskis are risking their lives to shelter two Jews, what they’re giving and what they’re taking become blurry. I like that moral ambiguity, one hallmark of The Yellow Bird Sings.
Another hallmark is the constant tension over small events — soldiers passing on the road, the Wiśniewski boys’ attempt to explore the barn, Shira’s difficulty remaining quiet. But the real test comes when the Germans tell Henryk that they’re requisitioning the barn; Róża and Shira must now flee, immediately. Do they try to go together through the forest? Or does Róża give Shira up to the nuns at the local orphanage, who’ve agreed to take her? Much follows from that decision, of course.
Rosner’s vivid prose conveys the physical claustrophobia, life lived inside the head:
Does Shira truly remember her father, gray speckled and musky, his embrace warm and soft but not like her mama’s, or is she making him up, mixing him up with her visions and dreams? A star-backed violin at his bearded chin, notes undulating like a tuning fork come to pierce her mother’s heart. The dancing stopped short, the violin boxed and buried after he didn’t return. Upon waking, she thought that if she could just lie with an ear to the ground, she might hear her father’s notes floating up through the rooted earth.
I also like how the narrative resists earnestness and gives nearly all the characters recognizable flaws as well as virtues. If anyone’s idealized, it’s Shira — I wish she had faults not explicable by her ordeal or forgivable for her age. Throughout, she remains a victim, so you feel sympathy for that; but victimhood wears thin, skating close to pity, less compelling than Róża’s portrayal, for instance. In the main, however, The Yellow Bird Sings protects nobody, least of all the Germans and their many fellow anti-Semites among the Poles; no whitewash, here.
Holocaust stories about children are legion, but this one stands out, all the more as a debut novel.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.