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The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA Book Poster Image
Sweet, deft, thought-provoking tale of the Jim Crow South.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Brenda Woods manages to convey the events and feelings of a sleepy Southern town in 1946 -- with all the complicated social problems underlying the prettiness -- with a rare combination of taking on heavy issues and doing so with a light touch. While most young readers know something about segregation and the Jim Crow era, it may come as a surprise that white World War II soldiers came home to ticker-tape parades, their African American counterparts were warned by their pastors to say nothing of their service lest they be lynched.

Positive Messages

As in Brenda Woods' previous stories, learning by example in loving families is a strong theme here. Strong messages of equality, kindness, empathy, fairness, and getting along with one another. Also of being honest with yourself instead of making excuses for your own behavior when you know it's not good.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Racists and other segregation-minded people play a role in the story -- it's 1946 in South Carolina -- but also contrast sharply with other characters, old and young, white and black, who live by better ways. Gabriel's parents are loving and fair, and believe in treating everyone with kindness, courtesy, and respect. Meriwether Hunter, the "colored" war veteran who saves Gabriel's life, also offers him wise guidance -- and a window into experiences very different from his own. Gabriel starts out as a nice kid who pretty much takes his happy life for granted, and becomes wiser and kinder as the story progresses.

Violence

A man collapses of a heart attack and dies. Gabriel narrowly escapes death when a car almost hits him.  A racist leaves a rattlesnake in a gift box for a little black girl, who fortunately is not harmed; her father physically intimidates him. Characters tell stories of people killed or maimed because of their race.

Sex

Twelve-year-old Gabriel has feelings for a slightly older girl, who's mostly caught up in her plans to be a doctor like her dad. A job opens up because one of Gabriel's father's mechanics is smitten with a girl and moves to her town. Gabriel's best friend Patrick's mom is about to have another baby.

Language
Consumerism

Mentions of Schwinn bikes, several car brands (Buick, Chevrolet) for scene setting. Also mentioned: the The Negro Motorist Green Book, which kept dark-skinned travelers in racist country advised of safe lodging, gas stations, etc. along the road.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA, is, like author Brenda Woods' previous books, unafraid to deal with troublesome issues -- in this case, racial injustice in the Jim Crow South, 1946. And, like her other books, it does so with a light touch, thanks to seeing the world through the eyes of a carefree 12-year-old white boy who learns to see through other people's eyes after a life-changing experience and a friendship with the African American war veteran who rescues him. As strong, appealing characters deal with unjust situations, their feelings are relatable (sometimes tragically, sometimes hilariously) and their experiences leave the reader with lots to think about. The few moments of violence include when Gabriel narrowly escapes death when a car almost hits him; a racist leaves a rattlesnake in a gift box for a little black girl, who fortunately is not harmed; and a man who collapses of a heart attack and dies; adult characters tell of returning black veterans beaten, blinded, or killed for being publicly proud of their service.

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What's the story?

It's 1946 in Birdsong, South Carolina, and young Gabriel Haberlin, much-loved only child of the town's prosperous, white car dealer and gas station operator, gets a brand-new bike, runs a red light, and nearly ends up under the wheels of a neighbor's Buick. Fortunately, THE UNSUNG HERO OF BIRDSONG, USA, a black man named Meriwether Hunter -- a war hero from World War II who isn't getting the honor awarded his white counterparts. He's also a skilled mechanic and is soon working for Gabriel's father, who believes in treating everybody with respect and fairness. As the two families get to know each other, Gabriel starts to see, through the eyes of his new friends, some things he's never much noticed.

Is it any good?

This well-told, relatable story focuses on a well-off white boy beginning to see and understand racism in the Jim Crow South after World War II. Author Brenda Woods has a knack for telling engaging stories about young characters dealing with new challenges -- here, a 12-year-old white kid in 1946 South Carolina. As young Gabriel emerges from a near-death experience, he becomes friends with his African American rescuer and starts to notice a lot of racist behavior and discrimination that he'd never really noticed before. Woods raises a lot of thought-provoking issues, viewed through the eyes of a young character who's sometimes hilariously flawed (his convoluted explanation of why it was all his parents' fault that he disobeyed them and took the bike out for a forbidden ride is a work of art) but basically a good kid trying to do right. As in this post-escapade moment when The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA gives wise counsel and Gabriel takes heed:

"'Resistin' temptation builds strength. We fail when we give in to it.'

"'So, I failed?'

"'Yes, my young friend, you failed. But what's important now is whether you fail again.' He took another bite from his apple.

"...This was going to be hard, but I was determined not to fail again."

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories that take place in the South during the segregation era. What issues and experiences do they address? How does The Unsung Hero of Birdsong County compare with other stories you've read about that time?

  • Segregation is illegal in most places these days, but racism is very much with us. Do people you know get treated differently because of their skin color? How do they handle it?

  • Have you ever done something you knew was wrong -- or maybe just thought about doing something you knew was wrong -- and come up with a really good argument about how it was the right thing to do all along? What happened?

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For kids who love historical fiction and stories of racism and social justice

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