By Elizabeth Wroten
Middle Grade Review: Nightingale’s Nest
On 13, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.
There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.
But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.
Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale’s Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.
I’m not really sure what I expected from this one. I guess I thought it would be more fantasy than it was. It ended up being magical realism, which really isn’t my thing. That being said, it was beautifully written and very moving which is why I finished reading it despite knowing early on that I wouldn’t personally click with it.
On the surface this is a story coming of age story wherein Little John learns to stand up for what is right and to deal with his grief over the death of his sister. Nightingale’s Nest runs deceptively deep though. It tackles poverty, child abuse, death, grief, and loss, the idea that money can’t buy happiness, and creepy old men.
This could easily be my personal bias talking, but Nightingale’s Nest felt more like a children’s book written for adults. It would certainly be the right book for a particular kid. If you have one of those kids in your library, you’ll know just by reading the synopsis who to give it to. I would note that the description calls it “inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story” and that would be about right. I’m not super familiar with the particular story, but it didn’t read much like a fairy tale, not even one set in a modern time. Even though the story ends on a hopeful note, it’s still awfully depressing and Little John can certainly be a sad sack. It skews young in terms of the vocabulary and complexity of the writing (not in how well it is written, but in a technical, mechanical sense!) but the themes and ideas and tacit messages of the book skew much older. The writing also had a dreamy, often almost unreal quality, that I tend to find magical realism books to have. I could see that being a challenge for a younger audience.
A number of the characters in the book are terrible people, but Loftin was really good at fleshing them out, making them flawed with motivations to be the people they are instead of caricatures. On the flip side, Little John was such a good guy. He got a lot of guff from his parents and other adults around and he beat himself up over his sister’s death, but none of it is his fault. It was interesting to see him come into his own and still make mistakes as the story unfolded.
I could see fans of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy enjoying this one if they’re ready for something a little more complex and little darker.