Winter Birds: A Novel

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In Jim Grimsley's remarkable first novel, Winter Birds, Danny Crell tells himself his own story, and in doing so illuminates the heartbreaking story of his father's violent tyranny over his mother, his sister, and his three younger brothers.

The novel begins on Thanksgiving in rural North Carolina in a broken-down cottage the Crell children have nicknamed "The Circle House." Ellen Crell's attempts at a family meal are thwarted and finally disastrously ruined when Bobjay draws ...

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1997-01-30 Paperback New

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In Jim Grimsley's remarkable first novel, Winter Birds, Danny Crell tells himself his own story, and in doing so illuminates the heartbreaking story of his father's violent tyranny over his mother, his sister, and his three younger brothers.

The novel begins on Thanksgiving in rural North Carolina in a broken-down cottage the Crell children have nicknamed "The Circle House." Ellen Crell's attempts at a family meal are thwarted and finally disastrously ruined when Bobjay draws her into a violent quarrel. It leads to a chase wherein Bobjay is the hunter, Ellen the prey, and their five children are caught in between.

Winter Birds is a haunting, unforgettable portrait of an American family shattered by violence, and of the lengths a woman will go to keep her family whole.

A prize-winning playwright's brilliant first novel unfolds in a strikingly unconventional way--as a young hemophiliac describes his baptism by violence in the rural south. "Tell everyone. I have rarely read anything as powerful. It is altogether marvelous, so beautifully written I wanted to steal it and pretend it was mine."--Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This intermittently affecting but disappointing first novel from Grimsley, winner of Newsday's Oppenheimer Award as Best New American Playwright of 1988, limns family dynamics in a household crushed under domestic violence. Danny Crell, an eight-year-old hemophiliac, his four siblings and their mother are long-term prisoners of their father and husband Bobjay's alcoholic rages. The narrative centers on this highly dysfunctional clan's Thanksgiving celebration, which goes terribly awry-the food winds up on the kitchen floor, Danny and his mother hide beneath their house-and ends in the grisly death of a dog. Grimsley describes the hopelessness of the family's life in lyrical and moving language. Bobjay is the main problem here: depicted as a cartoonish character with only the barest motivation for his anger (he lost part of his arm in a combine accident a few years back), he is Grimsley's excuse to focus relentlessly on the inner sensations of victimization. But he isn't fleshed out enough as a character to make his abusiveness seem credible or worth our attention. Since the other characters are also insufficiently developed, the narrative never coheres into a compelling story. (Sept.)
Library Journal
This grimly violent first novel would seem unbelievable were it not largely autobiographical. It recounts the tumultuous history of the Crells, a poor and transient Southern family, as seen through the eyes of Danny Crell, a dreamy eight-year-old hemophiliac and the author's alter ego. The action is dominated by a brutally violent Thanksgiving Day quarrel between Bobjay, Danny's alcoholic father, and Ellen, his long-suffering mother. The shocking immediacy of the material compels readers to continue even when its harshness might otherwise turn them away. This artfully told trip through hell is at once a survivor's tale and a tribute to a mother's endurance as she struggles to keep her family together against impossible odds. Recommended for all public libraries.-Lawrence Rungren, Bedford Free P.L., Mass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684829913
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 1/30/1997
  • Series: Scribner Paperback Fiction Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.27 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Grimsley

Jim Grimsley was born in 1955 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and like his character, Danny Crell, moved around a lot with his family, following his father from job to job. In an essay about his writing, called "True Fiction," Grimsley says, "We were always poor, moving from house to house, with our every move the subject of discussion by our neighbors in the small farm community where we lived." Like Bobjay Crell in Winter Birds, Grimsley's father had lost his arm in a farm accident and was every bit as heavy and abusive a drinker as Bobjay. One night, in a drunken rage, he went so far as to light the family home on fire while they were all barricaded inside, against him.

Even so, Grimsley has some compassion for his father."My father wasn't at all prepared to be married or to be a father," he says, "and to all of a sudden have children — children with big problems. They were terribly in debt by the time I was five.... Father not only lost his arm, he lost his job after he'd already waived his right to file for any kind of insurance claim. The farmer did him dirty. So he had all that anger, and he's 23 or 24 and his life is already ruined. I feel really bad when I think of that side of him. He kept us fed, he didn't give up, but he could never stop being just furious. The only people he had any power over in his life were his family." Sadly, Grimsley's father later committed suicide.

Grimsley went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied creative writing. Around the time of his father's death, he began to write Winter Birds."I have vivid memories of my family, of the way we lived, and my writing feels very powerful when I am working out of this material," he says. "These memories are often very unpleasant and lead to stories that are cathartic to read, but hard to sell to publishers. But I think you really do see, in writers now, people writing from a class that hasn't yet spoken at all. Many people have written about poor people, but I don't think the very poorest people have been written about quite the way you really see them. The attitude in literature toward that class of people up until now has been that poor people were just like everybody else, only with fewer material things. Nobody dealt with just how animalistic your life can become when you don't have anything."

Winter Birds went unpublished in the United States for ten years. Publishers rejected it because they thought it a grim, hopeless story. But in 1992, a German publisher who was familiar with Grimsley's plays, published Wintervogel. France followed with the publication of Les oiseaux de l'hiver in 1994, which won the distinguished Prix Charles Brisset award, the first time the award had ever gone to a non-French writer. In the United States, Winter Birds was finally published in 1994, and it was a runner-up for the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award. Winter Birds won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. "A hell of a ride," Grimsley says of his new success.

During the lean years, Grimsley turned to plays, believing they were more easily realized than novels. In his case it turned out to be true. In 1984, 7 Stages in Atlanta produced Grimsley's first play, and in 1986 he became a playwright in residence. In 1988, he was awarded Newsday's George Oppenheimer Award as the year's Best New Playwright for Mr. Universe. Ten full-length and five one-act plays have been produced, and Math and Aftermath, Grimsley's new one, just finished its run at Camilla's Theater in New York.

Grimsley's second novel, Dream Boy, has received critical acclaim: "a singular display of literary craftsmanship," says Publishers Weekly. It is the haunting, sensitive story of two adolescent country boys who fall in love. Grimsley wants it to be more than just another "gay novel," hoping that Dream Boy will be a book that breaks down the lines between "gay fiction" and fiction. Dream Boy won the 1996 American Library Association's Gay Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Lambda Literary Award.

Grimsley now lives with his two cats in a basement apartment in Atlanta, where he writes continuously, turning out several pages a day, every day, while still maintaining his job as playwright in residence. He is presently finishing up a sequel to Winter Birds and says there are "a dozen more novels" he wants to write. Novelist and friend Ann Patchett says,"Jim does this all-the-way-to-the-wall, beautiful writing about horror. He has come so far from where he is from, strictly through his own talent. He wrote his way out of backwoods North Carolina, the same way he wrote his way out of his limitations of hemophilia."

To make his success bittersweet, in addition to having hemophilia, Grimsley is HIV-positive."A couple of journalists have even asked me how long I thought I'd live," he says. "I plan to live to be 100. I don't feel at all mortal. I started hearing that I was going to die young, so young that I really don't think about it. It makes a lot of difference that I'm happy."

Reading Group Discussion Points

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. In Winter Birds, Grimsley has created an omnipotent sense of the hunt. Analyze how Grimsley creates this extraordinary sense of pursuit.
  2. Discuss the unconventional way in which Winter Birds unfolds — I)anny telling his own story to himself. What does it bring to the narrative that a more conventional way of storytelling could not?
  3. What does the title "Winter Birds" mean? Did you relate it to the opening scene in the book when the boys are shooting birds? What is the metaphor?
  4. How does the hemophilia of Danny and Grove impact the story and ultimately raise the stakes?
  5. The children have nicknamed the cottage they live in "The Circle House." What metaphor(s) does Grimsley draw from this system of rooms wherein doors open into one room, then into another, then into yet another? How is it especially significant when Bobjay ultimately manages to penetrate the house, despite all Ellen and the children have done to keep him out?
  6. It is obvious that Bobjay is a cruel tyrant, terrorizing his family. Discuss the ways in which he is also a victim.
  7. Danny watches his mother grow more and more distant as she hides from Bobjay under the house. Grimsley writes: "Maybe it has come to your Mama now: the knowledge that your Papa and her Daddy are the same man, that maybe the feeling your Papa first gave her was no more than that; maybe something in her made her pick Bobjay Crell because he was like the Daddy she had known all her life, and maybe the feeling was never love." How did this possibility affect you? Did you believe this to be true for Ellen? Discuss this psychological phenomenon.
  8. When Bobjay kills Queenie and all her unborn pups, who and what is he really killing, and why?
  9. Why do you think Ellen lets Bobjay back into the house and hence, back into their lives that Thanksgiving night, after he has stalked her, hunted her down, and terrorized her children?
  10. In the end of the novel, when Grimsley writes: "You are a little boy following your Mama across the field. The grave will be like a channel marker, and when you are there you will know that facts are your only friends." What does he mean? What lesson has Danny learned from his family's circumstances?
Recommended Readings

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Dream Boy, Jim Grimsley

The End of Alice, A. M. Homes

Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe

Monkeys, Susan Minot

My Drowning, Jim Grimsley

The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy

The Surface of Earth, Reynolds Price

This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Tobias Wolff

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2012

    Good book people read it i dare you

    You should read this people

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    Posted May 27, 2012

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