Friday, May 29, 2015

Imagine Home: Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

The vision of a winged woman draws a rootless teenaged girl from a trailer park in Florida to her ancestral home in Lithuania. Around this single thread, author Michele Young-stone weaves the stories of a half-dozen characters inspired by that same winged woman through decades of war, oppression, and, at last, liberation.

Though Young-Stone takes the title of her novel from John Lennon's "Imagine," Above Us Only Sky refutes that insipid anthem with imagination more lively and grounded.

Lennon imagines "there's no country," but Young-Stone gives us a saga of homeland lost and found again.  As chapters ricochet between 1989, 2005, and the 1940s, Nationalism unleashed by Hitler and Stalin accounts for casual acts of horrific brutality that propel characters from their homes.  But Lithuania's national anthem, we're told, means much more than "love of country."  It's an emotional high point of the novel when the character known mostly as Old Man is joined by people on the street in singing the song. He explains,  "Our hymn means don't forget history. Mankind is our duty.  Unity.  Lithuania forever... We are Lithuanian.  We are not the Soviet Union....We never give up trying to be free" (176).

Lennon intones, "Imagine there's no heaven,/...Above us, only sky," but Young-Stone's characters often look to the sky for hope, and find it.   The American girl Prudence, looking back from adulthood on her family's story, tells of others who believed in miracles: "So do I.  I try.  I did. I do.  I used to.  I do.  I think I do" (229).  She may have doubts, but intimations of spiritual reality fill her story.  Her best friend Wheaton has second sight, seeing right away that Prudence had been born with wings (surgically removed at birth).  She herself is brought from the brink of suicide by the vision of the winged woman (77).  In her family's saga, unbelieving characters' desperate prayers find answers, as when the young refugee Stasys kneels in the wake of his wife Daina's arrest (123).  A police chief and a photographer are transformed by the sight of Daina's actual wings.  The photographer never ages from that point, devoting the rest of his life to recreating images of her wings in art (186). Daina herself finds inspiration in a vision of Lithuania's patron saint Casimir (127). Icons, angels, and churches appear more and more as the novel reaches its climax.

Birds -- elusive, rising skyward, heading home -- make a useful symbol for the unrequited longings that the novel's characters share.  Young-Stone associates wings with hope --  "I think about a girl I found in the dirt," young Stasys thinks, "a girl with wings, a future" (108).   By the novel's end,  when Young-Stone has managed to have all the characters converge in one town,  Prudence concludes that "life would be life for anyone who felt different...wings or not... perhaps more inspired, but that was up to the individual, not a pair of wings" (207).  Thinking of the scars where her wings were clipped at birth, Prudence learns that "we all have scars," or, as Stasys puts it when he's considering whether to hate the Russian woman who denounces his wife to Stalin's minions, "Everybody has a story" (149).  The longest arc of unrequited love in the novel concerns Wheaton, the "sweet kid" with second sight who befriends Prudence at age seven, but who disappears from her story when she focuses on discovering her family.  Wondering if and how he will reappear was one of the teasers that draws us through the story.

Lennon's song has only a tenuous connection to the saga, in that he was idolized by Prudence's shiftless father, whom the Old Man calls the "fool" in this story.  The title may be ironic, then.  But the epigraph for the novel's fourth part might provide a phrase that fits the story better, and all our stories, besides.  It's from Salman Rushdie:   "It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity." 

Young-Stone, Michele.  Above Us Only Sky.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2015.

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