Sometimes the perfect book comes along at the perfect time. When I was in Memphis for my mom’s funeral last week, I stayed with a dear friend who is a children’s librarian. She urged me to read Each Little Bird that Sings, by Deborah Wiles. It’s the story of 10 year old Comfort Snowberger, who lives with her eccentric and endearing family in a funeral home in Snapfinger, Mississippi.
The Snowbergers have a good honest relationship with death, and Comfort has attended 247 funerals. She reports on the funerals, hoping one day to get in the local paper for her obituaries which are much more exciting than the boring things that do get published. She feels it is her duty to keep everyone’s spirits up. It’s her contribution to the general family attitude of being of service.
However, Comfort is finding it too hard to be of service to her bratty cousin Peach. She hates him and his whiny ways. She also finds out that her best friend, Declaration, is in the process of dumping her for cooler girls. Declaration is being mean and has begun to taunt her for being around dead people all the time. Her best friend, it seems, is her dog, Dismay.
Then Uncle Edisto dies. Then Aunt Florence. These elders of the family take with them the wonderful sense of security that Comfort has grown up around. That’s 249 funerals. Who will be number 250? Aunt Florence promised a sign for Peach at her funeral. What happens takes Comfort so close to the reality of death that it impacts the whole family. It portrays the changing nature of friendship in a delicate but realistic way. Life altering events, in fact, alter lives.
This book was engaging and funny and sad. It was also a reassuring companion as I navigated my mother’s funeral. It helped me appreciate the deeper meaning of the hymns and the sermons and the rituals we went through to honor my mother.
When we were young, our family was torn apart by divorce, alcoholism and poverty. We never really got proper training in how to handle funerals, weddings or any other public rituals. I never know what to do. My mother had the foresight and faith to arrange her own Christian funeral, and my sister, who took care of Mom, dealt with all the final details. All I had to do was go, mourn and commune with family and friends.
My friend who gave me the book, it turns out, went to funerals all the time with her family. One of the reasons she loved Each Little Bird that Sings, is that it reminded her so much of her childhood experience with beautiful funerals and the camaraderie that can happen around them. Her family would decorate and clean the graves of family members and loved ones. They took extra flowers to decorate graves for neighbors who could no longer make the trip to the cemetery.
I never really saw myself as a person to visit graveyards, but sure enough, now I want to visit my brother, my grandmother and my mother every time I go to Memphis. The funeral provided a closure, but it also provided a gateway. The small plots of ground that contains my family’s bones seem like passageways now — I can’t quite make it through to them, but I know they are there, removed from what Uncle Edisto refers to as the “messy glory” of life, but not gone from my messy life.
Each Little Bird That Sings has all the charm and culture of a small Mississippi town, or any rural town. The names and phrasings and insights and humor seem unique to the South and this book highlights all the goodness that can be a part of Southern life. Even though Memphis is a big city, it’s on the border of Mississippi and in the Mississippi River delta. Reading this novel took me back home in so many ways that when I got back to Portland, Oregon, the first thing I did was order my own copy.
Here’s a link to an excerpt on NPR:
From her website:
Deborah Wiles is the author of two picture books, ONE WIDE SKY and FREEDOM SUMMER, and four middle-grade novels: LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS (a 2005 National Book Award Finalist), THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, and her new novel, COUNTDOWN, book one of The Sixties Trilogy for Young Readers.
Her work has received the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, the PEN/Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award. She has taught writing workshops to thousands of children and teachers all over the country. She teaches in the MFA in Writing for Children Program at Vermont College and lives in Atlanta, where she grows the world’s most beautiful zinnias, climbs Stone Mountain, and avoids the Atlanta traffic.