Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

It's the end of summer 1972 and, so far, life has been pretty good for 11 year old Naomi Orenstein, nicknamed Chirp because of her interest in birds.  And living on Cape Cod year round, with her psychiatrist father, her fun-loving mother who is a dancer, and  her older sister Rachel, affords Chirp lots of opportunity to bird watch in her favorite, special spot, the perfect nest for observing all kinds of birds.

But one day after school, Chirp arrives at her spot only to find an old woman there who drives her away with a stick.  A foreboding of things to come?

Not long after, Chirp's mother falls down the back steps and next thing the family knows, she has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  Dad, Rachel and Chirp try to make the best of things while Mom is laid up, but soon all the order and fun are gone from the Orenstein home.

Mom falls into a serious depression, Rachel starts hanging out at a friends house where attitudes about pot and sex are rather loosey-goosey and Chirp tries to control her spinning out of control world by wavers between good-girl thinking (if I'm good than everything will be OK and a kind of wish fulfillment thinking (anticipating what other people will think and/or do based on past experiences).  

As her mother's depression get worse, Dad decides to admit her to a private mental hospital where she is give electroconvulsive therapy.  Meanwhile, Dad doesn't seem to be able to emotionally reach his daughters to help them through these difficult family times, Rachel's relationship with everyone goes downhill, and Chirp finds a quirky friendship with Joey, a neighbor who is also in her class.  Josey has his own misery to deal with in the form of an physically and verbally abusive, controlling father.

After Chirp's mother comes home from the hospital, things seem to be almost back to normal, until tragedy strikes again and she commits suicide.  Devastated, Chirp withdraws from everyone except Joey, who seems to be as empathic towards her as an 11 year old boy with his own problems can be.  The two decide to run away to Boston, where Chirp hopes to find the Swan Boat driver who took her and her mother for a ride in the spring and who, she is sure, will remember her mother.  But will this desperate act to regain the memory of the fun-loving mother Chirp once had actually help her work through her grief?

Nest is a powerful historical fiction debut novel for Esther Ehrlich and she has done a superb job of really capturing the Orenstein family dynamic in happy times, in sad times and in tragedy, and of drawing Chirp's character about as realistically as possible.  Chirp is an endearing character. whose vulnerability is really just so poignant throughout the story, but though I felt her character had such depth, I didn't feel that way about anyone else in the novel.

Perhaps writing from Chirp's point of view is a disadvantage for developing secondary characters, but it  is a great help for keeping the dark parts of the story from overwhelming the reader and keeps their interest.  This is a midde grade novel but I don't think this is really appropriate for  younger middle grade kids (but that decision s entirely up to the parents and/or teachers).  For myself, at 9 and 10 I wouldn't have liked this book, at 11, I would have loved it.  Setting the novel in 1972 will also help readers handle the difficult content - time distanced away from the present can make all the different with young sensitive readers.

I did like all the mentions of different middle grade favorite books like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.  And readers may remember the Swan Boats from reading Make Way for Ducklings when they were younger.

The Orenstein family is the only Jewish family in their small Cape Cod town (the name of which is never mentioned, but is near Hyannis Post).  Ehrlich portrays the dilemmas faced by Jewish school children living in a basically Christian setting, describing some Jewish traditions like sitting shiva when there is a death and some anti-Semitic sentiments from the other kids, like Joey when he gets mad at Chirp.  I thought these added to the story without overwhelming it and making it feel even more realistic.

I would have liked to learn more about Joey and his germ phobia, his mild OCD and his family dynamic, but Ehrlich gives us only what we need to understand how he could go from being a bully to being a such a good friend to Chirp.Our homes are our nests, in a way, and Ehrlich has given us food for thought as we watch Chirp's nest fall apart and her attempts to rebuild it.

Nest may sound like a difficult read, and it is to some degree, but it is also a story of hope, love, family, and friendship and like her predecessors,  Harriet Welsch, Claudia Kincaid, Mary Lenox and Sarah Crewe, Chirp Orenstein is a character you won't soon forget.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

An Educator's Guide for Nest is available to download HERE


  1. It's still a bit of a shock to hear books that take place during my lifetime described as "historical fiction" but I have to admit that the early 70's are close to the dinosaurs as far as my kids are concerned. This sounds like I book I will enjoy.

    1. I know what you mean, exactly. It was the same reaction I had when American Girl came out with a historical doll from 1974 - historical? Wait, I was that girl! But this is the perfect time for Nest to take place. It's a hard book emotionally, but so well done.

  2. Wow! That's a lot of issues in one mg novel! Kudos to the author. Looks like a story that will stay with you long after the ending.


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