Oates’ chilling small-town mystery
Murder and small-town life mix in Joyce Carol Oates’ latest literary offering, Little Bird of Heaven. Through the eyes of young Krista Diehl, we are transported to the fictional town of Sparta in upstate New York, where life is hard and few ever leave. Krista is but 11 years old when her childhood begins to splinter. Her father, Eddy, has been having an affair with Zoe Kruller, known for her job at Honeystone’s Dairy as well as her nighttime singing gigs with a local band. Zoe moves out of the house she shares with her husband Delray and son Aaron, only to turn up murdered not long afterward. Aaron discovers Zoe’s body, and Delray and Eddy are detained as possible suspects. Although neither man is charged with the crime, neither escapes unscathed: Eddy loses his family when his wife kicks him out; Delray nearly loses his business and his drinking spirals out of control.
Throughout the novel, the town of Sparta, with its uneducated, hard-living inhabitants and crumbling infrastructure, is more than just a backdrop. It ensnares its citizens—people in the town cannot free themselves from its grasp. Prosperous folks are not at the forefront here, yet class differences, particularly between the inhabitants of Sparta and the nearby reservation, are keenly observed.
In part one, Krista’s life is vividly imagined. The narrative meanders through her recollections, delicately painting the picture of her family’s disintegration while building toward an electrifying scene that caps off Krista’s story. When the tale switches its focus to Aaron in part two of the novel, Oates’ writing opens up while the story itself becomes more compact. The contrast between these two elements results in a shorter and sparser, but equally affecting, narrative.
Little Bird of Heaven is classic Oates. Its depiction of violence, families falling from grace and social class disparities, as well as its location, recall her 1996 bestseller, We Were the Mulvaneys. Fans of Oates will delight in this offering and newcomers to her work will receive a first-class introduction.
Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.