Hugely insightful — During my years of working with juvenile felons, I came across numerous academic studies from the fields of sociology, criminology and psychology, together with endless administrative emanations attempting to address institutional policy. Finally, someone has put the subject into real perspective! With Bluebird Song, Morrison Phelps hits with bull’s eye accuracy the tragedy surrounding outlawed kids.
This unique account of our society’s betrayed youth made me laugh and made me cry. The book is truly significant–and I predict will become a landmark contribution–to the related literature. It captures what the academics have missed: soul.
Not for everyone — only those who want to feel; not for those who want to analyze.
Having worked in the juvenile justice system for 30+ years as an educator, I was right back in the classroom again. The author has really struck a chord with me. Delving into the subculture of the institutional youth; largely an invisible population within our schools/justice systems, these young people all have ‘stories’ that are virtually untold. The Author’s portrayal of events though fictional is reminiscent of many interactions I personally have had with incarcerated youth.
“Bluebird Song” is a must read for people who work with this population and others desiring an insight into the incarcerated juvenile’s alternative hidden world.
Very compelling. This is far more than a story about bad boyz! Several provocative themes are thoughtfully advanced. This is accomplished by way of wonderful character development to include three very different troubled teens whose only commonality is their edginess and incarceration, and two adults who care deeply about each other yet play off one another with classic protagonist/antagonist tension. Much of the language has a delicious raunchiness to it, and unlike another review here, I found the story’s authenticity heightened by the dialect (well seeded within dialogue, rap lyrics, colloquial Spanish and gangsta-speak that’s referenced by a substantive glossary).
There’s a whole lot going on in this book. I previewed the discussions questions (available from the publisher’s website). Written by a teacher whom I’m guessing is a talented classroom presenter, these will spark lively book club sessions, no doubt!
This is a really captivating read that shifts back and forth between humor and hard rock seriousness. The story contains an array of well researched subjects that lead to one essential message: What’s done to children, sometimes leads to consequences for society.
Truly a stirring novel. Great stuff for a book discussion group.
I thought I knew troubled teens based on my work as a junior high vice principal, but this book adds a whole new dimension to my understanding of the word “troubled.”
Reading Morrison Phelps’ impressive debut novel Bluebird Song, I was reminded of that old Walter Cronkite CBS News program “You Are There” in which reporters, in modern suits, were present at momentous occasions in history. In this provocative novel you are there in the reformatory school’s woodshop, hiding behind the talking band saw, or avoiding the menacing table saw. You admire the pegboard filled with lethally sharp tools and the bold sign above them: A space for everything and everything in its space.
The story begins on Monday morning, first period. Slowly, carefully, the author introduces us to a cast of fascinating characters that none of us is likely to encounter, or would want to:
Murph, the burned-out former English teacher, re-assigned to teach high-risk juvenile offenders to make bookcases and doll cradles. Millie, Murph’s wife, mourns that the man she married, who once listened to NPR, has now turned to Fox News as his source of knowledge and inspiration.
Maria, the English-challenged lesbian/madonna security officer, providing the glue that holds the class, if not the entire school, together. Able to bench-press three hundred pounds, Maria intimidates the inmates, who are fearful of being knocked to the floor by a woman. Arguably, Maria is the only normal person at the institution.
Eli, the black controlled-substance entrepreneur. sly, manipulative, and bi-lingual — either straight English or street gangsta rap (there is an appendix translating the rap), proudly explaining how to steal a theft-proof Lexus. He is awaiting the results of a parole board hearing that will free him or cause him to lose two more years of freedom, plus his car and a son and the boy’s mother.
Biff, the doltish, farm-raised, semi-literate, former barn-burner, famous for single-handedly causing human-to-sheep-romance to be outlawed by the Washington State Legislature. He was sent up for torching the barn to get back at the neighbor who obtained a restraining order to keep Biff away from his sheep. Although slow of mind, Biff often unwittingly leads discussions using the Socratic Method.
Thorny, short for Hawthorne Rutherford Coppersmith II, the new preppy resident, formerly a student at a high-end Catholic high school, and possibly convicted of using his mother’s Mercedes to destroy a garden and injuring an elderly pedestrian. (No one believes this story because Thorny provides too many details, a sure sign of lying.) Thorny endlessly offers quotes from the Bible appropriate to any topic, from theology to the best wood glue.
The Rain. Unbelievably falling to double the depth of that in Seattle. A constant presence.
The Director (Unseen): Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Nodding, smiling, with foreknowledge of Friday’s tragic dénouement.
The Producer (Also unseen): God. Alternately deified and demonized.
As the story unfolds, the reader is at first lulled into complacency with the family-oriented chit chat between Murph and the likeable Maria. Then elements of tension are introduced with the appearance of Eli, the clever “pharmacist,” waiting to probe and exploit the weaknesses of everyone else. His primary foil, Biff, runs in out of the incessant rain – mourning the loss of his stay-at-home boa constrictor recently bifurcated by two pit bulls for having chomped down their step-brother, a Mexican Chihuahua. With a short fuse, Biff is purposely teased by Eli and concurrently protected by Maria, she subbing for the mother he hardly knew. Into this mix steps Thorny. Murph is seduced by the new boy’s erudition and insights, not to mention knowledge of the Bible, and begins to see him as the son he had hoped for. The reader will sense that Thorny is too good to be true.
Soon, you’ll be asking yourself “Which of these characters will survive through Friday afternoon?” The author is an adroit story-teller, combining an interesting narrative with enough suspense to make Bluebird Song a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. I’m anxious to read this author’s next work.
Honestly, when a friend handed me this book and said I should read it, I wasn’t very much interested. This is because initially I had seriously misjudged it as a high school genre about street kids. Well I’m here to report that it’s a whole lot more than that! Furthermore, before reading the book, if you had described the threesome of jailed teens in the story, I would have been repulsed; yet this masterful storyteller managed to make me really care about them. (I still cry for Biff.) I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next as the many short chapters unfolded.
There are several sideline characters running throughout the story, giving a Holden Caufield dimension to the boy who harkens back to their influence on him. In particular, the side story about the priest was riveting for me. He’s going through secreted misgivings about the resurrection and heaven (the book presents some oddly provocative perspectives on religious doctrine) that are strikingly similar to those of his former student, a rich kid who is deeply conflicted about his own religious training and criminal past.
I greatly appreciated that Book Two (“In The Aftermath”) was included and not made into a sequel under separate cover. You get to find out right away what becomes of the characters and their families after the week’s horrific events. In Book Two you’ll come across some very unexpected twists and turns, and in the end the author manages to bring lots of story fragments full circle, showing their unpredictable inter-connectedness.
I really think this is one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time. Not just because it has unique insights into the lives of troubled teenagers, or because it’s so cleverly constructed, but because it’s told with really great heart. My one issue would be the dialect for some of the characters. But then again, I got used to it. The colloquial Spanish for Maria the security guard seemed spot-on to me. I must say that I grew to love Maria. (Seemed to me that she is the Christ figure in this novel; a reference to Dostoevsky’s cited presence in the story.)
I genuinely recommend this book for a fascinating and immersive read. Like the author says in his message: “I felt like I was living in a play with bigger than life characters.”
I was somewhat taken aback when I began reading the book as the teacher character seemed very angry, disgusted with his job and eager to retire. As I read along, I became very engaged. Having worked with troubled youth, although not incarcerated as such, I read along with great interest. The story unfolds as three very different students’ personal experiences are revealed and as those teaching and caring for the students, personalities and stories are shared. The author writes within a serious vain, sharing a story which needs to be told, yet intertwined with humor, enhancing the subject matter and keeping the reader fully cognizant. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in gaining more appreciation and respect both for those who work with troubled teens as well as insight and understanding for our youth who are incarcerated, a subject that is difficult to read about but a story that needs to be shared.
This would be a great book for a book club study or even a post graduate abnormal psych class.
I finally got the answer to a four decade old question of what goes on behind the fences of a juvenile detention facility. Insightfully crafted, Bluebird Song brings the reader behind the fences and into the lives of staff, convicted students and families. An excellent read with humor and tears. Fo shizzle!
This novel is in some ways a “hard read”, in the sense that Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders are hard to read: they are writing about disturbing subjects which we prefer not to know about. We don’t like to know that our society has produced children with problems this serious and that our society really doesn’t know what to do about them. Or if we do know, we have decided not to dedicate sufficient resources to the problem.
The plot of the novel develops slowly but leads to a dramatic and believable conclusion which I feel could well be developed by the author and a director and creative actors into a moving stage play which might well have a greater chance to force us to look at the problem; to not look away.
But even if art cannot influence public policy, the writer has done an admirable job of dramatizing his experience. A worthy effort and a very worthwhile read. Should be required reading for every Washington State legislator.