In a sleepy farm community in Kentucky, large families are common and most people continue farming the land like their parents and grandparents before them. That’s the case for Lillie, who despite years working in a dress shop in town, eventually marries Clay and settles down to being a farmer’s wife, thinking that she’s found a solid man like her father was. Her younger sister, Catherine, however, has the good fortune-sort of-to be farmed out to her aunt in Michigan with promises that she will receive a quality education. Her aunt’s promises, however, are a ruse to get Catherine to come north to work as an unpaid servant for her. Then one day, a man named Jack delivers a piece of furniture to her aunt’s house and Catherine becomes smitten with him. Soon Catherine is planning to marry Jack, but he will turn out not to be all he seems. And neither is Lillie’s Clay.
Set in Kentucky, Michigan, and post-war Los Angeles, Karen Evancic’s new novel When a Red Bird Flies takes readers from the Great Depression through 1954 to tell the story of two sisters who live very different lives but often have similar experiences. The novel opens in 1953 when Lillie is dying in the hospital at the young age of forty-four after years spent raising a family, living under her husband’s iron fist, and trying to see the good in everyone. She is practically a prisoner in her home, and yet her soul has never quite been chained. And when need be, she is called to action to help her children, even when her husband threatens her.
As for Catherine, her life is far more mobile as she moves from Michigan to California and has various adventures. She finds the strength to leave a man who is not worthy of her, and she learns how to rise above narrow-minded prejudice. Her greatest struggle, however, is her inability to have children.
Evancic, a veteran, mother, and registered nurse, has used her personal experiences and drawn upon her family’s history to create a powerful first novel. It’s rare that a first-time author writes with such depth and poignancy and such insight into her characters. While the novel is far from action-packed, the reader can’t help but read on, constantly wanting to find out what will happen to Catherine, and the reader listens eagerly, like Lillie’s nurse, Elizabeth, beside Lillie’s bed, for her next story, wanting to understand how Lillie could survive such a difficult marriage and what words of wisdom she has to offer.
Major historical events are not at the center of this book, but rather the quiet life of a farm community while World War II rages elsewhere. Nor are major world events necessary in historical fiction because most of us live lives where politics and wars scarcely affect our daily lives. Instead, the heart of our existence is usually found in our everyday relationships and our ability to see the real person before us. Several times in the book, the importance of truly seeing another is emphasized, and when it happens, it becomes the turning point for the characters’ lives.
Evancic is not afraid to get deep inside her characters’ hearts and minds. She reveals their fears and does not shy away from the ugly side of life. But she also allows her characters to cling to hope, to feel that their lives do matter, and to share their stories to provide courage and understanding to others. The end result is a powerful novel that will have readers returning in their thoughts to Lillie’s bedside to think further about life long after the book’s last page has been read.
As a first novel, When a Red Bird Flies has garnered a great deal of praise. It won first prize in the Historical Fiction, Southeast Fiction, and Adult Fiction categories in the 2015 Reader Views Literary Awards, and it won the Richard Boes Award for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir). It also is the Gold Winner of the 2015 Feathered Quill Literary Award for Women’s Fiction. In addition, it is the 2015 Winner of the Garcia Memorial Prize for Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year, and the Conversations Award for Best Regional Book of the Year. It is rare for a book to receive so many honors, and in this reader’s opinion, they are all well-deserved.