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Sparrow    by Sherri L. Smith order for
by Sherri L. Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Kendall Washington remembers her grandmother's golden rule: 'family sticks with family'. G'ma brought up Kendall after her parents and brother died in an auto accident. Now G'ma, too, is gone after suffering a stroke. The only family left is Aunt Janet, whom Kendall barely remembers from her parents' funeral as a person dressed in purple, and only because G'ma said her name before she died - 'I'm sorry, Janet' (Kendall knows not why). Her heart is broken with the loss as she sings along with recordings of grandmother's blues music, ''Why should I be discouraged' ... the science formulas on the page in front of me whirling into shapes I recognize. 'When trust I have in thee? His eye is on the sparrow, and I knew he watches me'.'

At seventeen years of age, Kendall faces a decision. She must put her life in order - either allow child services to place her in a foster home, or find an adult relative, that being Aunt Janet, whose last known residence is New Orleans. G'ma's lease is about to end, and Kendall needs an adult to sign the renewal so that she can remain in the Chicago apartment, and finish the remainder of her last high school year.

Travelling by bus to New Orleans, Kendall finds Janet's apartment empty. Neighbors have no knowledge of where her aunt has gone. Kendall meets wheelchair-bound Evie (who has a 'voice for the blues' just like G'ma did), and resourceful young Marcus. Evie's mom Clare offers Kendall a temporary job as caretaker to her disabled daughter, and she remains in Janet's apartment in case she returns. Evie and Kendall's relationship gets off to a rocky start, but it blossoms as they connect with each other's pride and loneliness.

With the help of new friends, and neighborhood merchants, Kendall is introduced to the sights and sounds of New Orleans, and especially Mardi Gras good times. She learns of beignets (French doughnuts), and where chicory comes from, as she in turn tells of Chicago delicacies such as Wunderbar (cheesecake on a stick). Kendall gives serious thought to making her final grades through GED exams, while struggling with a search for family and a place to call home. The mystery of Janet (G'ma's other daughter) plays an important, redemptive part in bringing the story to a conclusion.

Sparrow tells a tale of interracial friendships, and mutual needs. It's a seemingly simple story, told in first-person narrative. Yet Sherri Smith's somber writing has a certain magic, delicately accomplished with irresistible imaging, such as 'It's Sarah Vaughan, singing something sweet and low over the speakers. One of G'ma's lonely-day songs. It sounds like a smoky jazz club on a warm summer night. Like I'm Kendall being wrapped up inside of G'ma's old blankets. I sit on the sofa with my iced tea and start to cry.' The description of Evie's disability - and the reality of balancing life's emotional losses and gains - is just as delicately and well done.

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