Title: Above Us Only Sky
Author: Michelle Young-Stone
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
Blurb from Goodreads
On March 29, 1973, Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with heart-shaped wings pressed accordion-style against her back. Considered a birth defect, her wings were surgically removed, leaving only the ghost of them behind.
In 1980, Prudence’s mother takes her from Nashville to Florida, to a town inhabited by people who have run as far as they can without fins or wings. In this new town, Prudence is befriended by a boy who can see what others can’t, including Prudence’s ghostly wings.
The unexpected and unimaginable bubble up from the depths of the Atlantic to confront Prudence when she meets her long-estranged Lithuanian grandfather and discovers a miraculous lineage beating and pulsing with past Lithuanian bird-women, storytellers with wings dragging the dirt, survivors perched on radio towers, lovers lit up like fireworks and heroes disguised as everyday men and women.
Above Us Only Sky spans the 1863 January Uprising against Russian Tsarist rule in Eastern Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Lithuania’s independence in 1991. It is a story of mutual understanding between the old and young; it is a love story, a story of survival, and most importantly, a story about disovering where we belong in the world.
Sometimes when you finish a book you know you loved it but yet you can’t fully explain why.
Above Us Only Sky relates the histories of women throughout the generations of one family who are all born with wings but focuses primarily on one, on a girl called Prudence. When she is born the doctor apologises for this “defect”… This aberration from the ordinary. And at a few months old her “bifurcated protrusions” were incised.
The story then begs the question do we carry with us the ghost of who we were born to be as Prudence looks to her past to discover who she truly is.
The book opens with this wonderful quote by J.M. Barrie, “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings“.
At its heart Above Us Only Sky is a story about faith in the great unknown and about who we are as people. It is about our histories and how these experiences mould us into people. About family, about nationality, about war, about pain, about suffering and about love.
“I felt guilty because I was upset by the loss of one friend when the Old Man had lost nearly everyone he loved. Loss, I soon learned from him, is not measured in numbers. It’s not comparative. It’s in here (I’m touching my chest now)”
For me this was a book about Prudence’s journey to adulthood rather than the ultimate destination. It was an adult coming of age story. Different chapters could follow different characters relating to Prudence (a grandfather, an aunt, a friend etc etc) yet all were interconnected with this one story of personal identity and longing for the quiet of home. It was stunningly written and quietly moving.
Prudence’s paternal family were of Lithuanian and German heritage and their story through the horrors of 19th century Eastern European uprisings/wars and beyond provided much of the backdrop of the book. This wasn’t some light, whimsical read but packed a weighty emotional punch as all manner of wartime hardships were laid bare at the reader’s feet.
It was such a quiet book though…
How a book could be both weighty and ethereal at the same time baffles me.
The characters experienced so much in war times, saw things that no human being should ever have to see and hurt my heart so much… and yet still somehow, resulted in a book that managed to uplift the reader because it was truly a book about human connection.
The power and resolve of the human spirit in this book was truly awe inspiring. To me that is what the wings represent. Prudence’s wings were cut away from her as an infant but she somehow still carried them with her and always felt like she was something more…
That there was something greater guiding her, that maybe it was her aunt, her grandmother…
These women from the past…
And this sense of ‘more‘ manifested in a way that meant her soul and spirit were capable of soaring to greater heights than anyone could believe. She was able to learn to let go of the callousness of human nature and become that beautiful bird-like girl that she should be….
“You are with the birds. Soaring. Flying. Don’t worry about what used to be. If you lose something, you let it go.”
I know I have failed miserably at reviewing this book in a remotely coherent manner. I do know this is not a book for everyone. It’s a quiet book for those who prefer the journey to the destination. It’s a book for those who can close their eyes and take that leap of faith into the unknown. A book for those who find hope in the pain of the past. A book for those whose lives have been touched by sorrow but still strive for better.
I’m still not entirely sure what I read but I know that this book has made my heart feel like it has wings to soar up above us into the sky.