Some books provide escapism. Some books make you think. Some books force you to confront emotions that are so raw you don't know what to do with them. That's what Bridget Birdsall's book, Ordinary Angels, did for me. I have never experienced the kind of personal grief or fear or confusion that Birdsall brings to the printed page. But I came to understand it just a little bit reading Ordinary Angels.
Birdsall's story of a family trapped by their own inner demons and the horrific death of a sibling is told in present tense using second person narration. That's right--second person. It feels as if you are lying in bed at night next to her character May O'Mally, listening in as she reminds herself of how her little brother was found dead in a neighbor's driveway and how nobody knows who was responsible for his death and nobody will talk about it. You imagine that she must tell herself that story every night of her life.
Indeed, Bridget Birdsall told me, as we sat chatting over café mochas one sunny afternoon, that Ordinary Angels, though fiction, was a "semi-autobiographical" novel. She wrote the book in order to make sense out of an emotional chaos that had dogged her all her life. So we listen in as May deals with her own guilt--the kind of guilt only a child can lay on themselves for not having saved a brother who couldn't be saved-- and we learn about growing up in a family where as the oldest child she had to take over responsibility for her siblings because her mother's addiction to alcohol not only kept her from mothering but caused her to be an abuser of the children.
The story is necessarily dark, but not brooding. Its themes are adult, but adults of all ages as well as teens and young adults in families dealing with addiction and abuse will identify with them. The story is intimate and raw, but uplifting and inspirational.
Ordinary Angels is an amazing piece of literature. As I said, I have had the good fortune never to have experienced the kind of trauma or life that its characters experienced, but in my work as a teacher I deal with many children who have gone or are going through similar emotions. As I "experience" life through the eyes, the words, and the heart of May, this book gives me a bit of insight, a path to empathy, a way to begin understanding my students whose lives don't match the comforting, loving paradigm of my own life. And the book gives me hope for them.
Ordinary Angels is currently only available in paperback, but can be ordered through Amazon or through local bookstores.