March 19, 2008

More Elusive Than A Scarlet Ibis

The Ever-After Bird, by Ann Rinaldi

Thirteen year old Cecelia McGill will never be an abolitionist. It consumed her father’s attention, made him unmindful of her and cruel, and it eventually killed him. Cece resolves that she will never become so fixated on people she doesn’t even know, and neglect the ones right next to her.

After her father’s funeral, her Uncle Alex, also an abolitionist, greets Cece with tenderness and honesty. So unlike her own father, Uncle Alex seems to genuinely want to bring her to live with he and his wife, to help heal some of the scars left by her cold, unfriendly father. But first, he has a little trip he’d like to take Cece on. He, together with his assistant, Earline, is going to the deep South. He’s a budding ornithologist, and he’s looking for the Ever-After bird, what the slaves call the exceedingly rare scarlet ibis, a bird Cece’s uncle would dearly like to catch, kill, and paint.

Earline is a freed slave and a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, who, on trips to the South, pretends to be Alex's slave, working as his assistant and giving him access to the slaves on the plantations. As they journey, Cece is troubled to discover that she is both repelled by and afraid of Earline. For all that her father was an abolitionist, she has never spoken to a person of African descent. Worse, it is all too easy to pretend that Earline is her slave. Bossing her around and slapping her seem to be almost second nature. Piling more troubles on Cecelia’s young shoulders is the realization that her Uncle Alex is secretly spreading the word about the Underground Railroad and distributing money to help many of the slaves on the plantations they meet escape!

While much of the novel is straightforward, the reader cannot help but interpret Earline’s sly pettiness as an infatuation with Cecilia’s Uncle Alex, and then as an emotional dysfunction which Uncle Alex repeatedly explains away, making it clear that Earline is ‘damaged’ and not to be blamed for her bouts of temper and meanness. Earline is repeatedly depicted as someone ignorant, and more ruled by emotion than by intellect. She slaps the young and recently bereaved CeCe on some pretext, insinuates that she has more personal information about Cecelia’s immediate family than she does herself, lies about Uncle Alex, and openly schemes to remain central in his affections, despite the fact that she is both older and allegedly more educated and exposed to the way the world works than young Ceceila. The drama of the first-person narrative, in which CeCe sees up close the horrors of slavery are tensely riveting; the extemporaneous “female jealousy” problem, as Uncle Alex calls it, seems largely unnecessary and distasteful, pointing, as it does, to the idea of the infantile Southern woman, living her life only to scheme and catfight over a man.

One also wonders also if the author is inadvertently giving credence to the belief many Southerners held that persons of African descent were mentally inferior by birth, and would never, despite education, approach the level of intellect that a person of European descent could hope to achieve, as their ‘treacherous’ and hypersexualized ‘animal’ natures would ever catch them out. Earline, knowing the peril that they, as abolitionists, face in the South, nevertheless meets, falls in love, and in a secret slave ceremony marries a White carriage driver they encounter halfway through the journey. When in the novel’s dramatic climax, he is killed, she weeps and carries on and has to be drugged, dragged shrieking to a couch in stereotypical Southern belle fashion.

Though this dramatic novel will hold the interest of many young adults with its tumultuous view of slavery, its historical accuracy is dubious at best, and while the novel’s rapid conclusion neatly ties up all dangling strings, as a whole this novel leaves a lot to be desired.

This review was first published in the February '08 Edge of the Forest Children's Literature Monthly.

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