In The Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis tells a captivating story that explores the effect of a mother's past on her relationship with her daughter and her daughter's transition to adulthood. Through carefully juxtaposed chapters, Brandeis skillfully and sensitively develops the stories of Ava Sing Lo and her Korean mother, Hye-yang.
Ava, the daughter of an unknown African-American GI, accidentally kills a number of her mother's pet birds over the years. Hye-yang memorializes the birds along with some of her memories of her life as a prostitute forced to serve black American servicemen in Korea. Searching for her own identity and some form of approval from her mother, Ava volunteers to help in a massive effort to save dying birds at the Salton Sea near their home in San Diego. Nurtured by new friends she meets along the way, Ava comes to terms with the fact that she is the product of her mother's days as a prostitute and begins to negotiate her own way along the path to falling in love.
The Book of Dead Birds, Brandeis' first novel, was awarded the 2002 Bellwether Prize established by the writer Barbara Kingsolver to encourage literature of social responsibility. Through this prize, Kingsolver advocates serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Describing The Book of Dead Birds, Kingsolver notes, "It's lyrical, imaginative, beautifully crafted and deeply intelligent. Before anything else, its characters take you by the heart."In addition to drawing the readers into the characters and their personal pain, Brandeis educates readers on a fascinating variety of topics, including the ecology of southern California's Salton Sea and a biracial woman's search for racial identity. In a glimpse into Korean culture, Hye-yang reveals her past life to Ava through pansori, a traditional Korean epical song. In her singing, she chronicles the rejection she suffered from her own mother and grandmother, and describes how, chasing promises of fame, she was deceived into the brutal life of a Korean prostitute in the DMZ following the Korean War. Brandeis highlights the struggle of mother and daughter to understand each other and themselves, noting the intriguing similarities between the two. Through the parallel stories of Hye-yang and Ava, Brandeis underscores the importance of mothers being available to their daughters and providing loving surroundings in which they can learn to love themselves. Alice Pelland lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.