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Before Women Had Wings

Before Women Had Wings

4.8 16
by Connie May Fowler

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Starstruck by a dime-store picture of Jesus, Avocet Abigail "Bird" Jackson fancies herself "His girlfriend" and embarks upon a spiritual quest for salvation, even as the chaos of her home life plunges her into a stony silence. In stark and honest language, Bird tells the tragic tale of her father, a sweet-talking wanna-be country music star, tracks her older


Starstruck by a dime-store picture of Jesus, Avocet Abigail "Bird" Jackson fancies herself "His girlfriend" and embarks upon a spiritual quest for salvation, even as the chaos of her home life plunges her into a stony silence. In stark and honest language, Bird tells the tragic tale of her father, a sweet-talking wanna-be country music star, tracks her older sister's perilous journey into womanhood, and witnesses her mother make a courageous and ultimately devastating decision.

Yet most profound is Bird's own story—her struggle to sift through the ashes of her parents' lives, her meeting with Miss Zora, a healer whose prayers over the bones of winged creatures are meant to guide their souls to heaven, and her will to make sense of a world where fear is more plentiful than hope, retribution more valued than love. . . .

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Oprah's optioned this trailer-park tale of child abuse and redemption, which PW praised in a starred review for its "harrowing details" and "plangent, lyrical prose." (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Gritty detail aside, this lyrical tale of an abused child's survival and empowerment is more fable than yet another story of a dysfunctional family facing down its demons.

Set in her native Florida, a place of sandy scrub and rundown motor-courts, Fowler's tale (River of Hidden Dreams, 1994, etc.) offers a child, Avocet Abigail Jackson (Bird for short), as the chronicler of one redneck family's misery and mayhem. Glory Marie, the mother, gave Bird and her older sister, Phoebe, birds' names because birds could "fly above" the debris in their lives. And the girls will need to do a lot of metaphorical flying if they are to survive their increasingly violent childhood. Bird and her dirt- poor family live in an orange grove near the small store her parents run. Billy, the father, is suicidal and prone to drunken rages in which he beats his children and fights with his wife. But the family's troubles multiply when Glory Marie buys a car of her own and spends time away from home. Mad with jealousy, Billy pays someone to beat up Glory Marie, and then—horrified by what he's done—he disappears, only to be found a few days' later, a suicide. Mother and daughters head for Tampa, where Glory Marie finds work and a home for the family at the Travelers Motel. Phoebe does well at school, but Bird doesn't—she takes to staying home instead, befriending Miss Zora, a mysterious black woman who lives in one of the motel cabins. It's Miss Zora, a healer and a wise woman, who saves them all when the grieving Glory Marie starts drinking heavily and badly beats Bird. Under Miss Zora's wing (as it were), the two girls can fly away to safety while their mother heals.

A vividly modern if schematic fairy tale with the usual goodies and baddies appropriately updated.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Ballantine Reader's Circle Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

My whole body turned hot, then ice-block cold. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Did I feel sick because of my breath-holding, the bump on my head, my blood connection to Daddy? I didn't know, but I needed air bad, so I sat up, looked at Phoebe, studied her nettled face. Figured she could use some kind words. So I leaned into her: "He ain't dead."

Then I scrunched down into the seat, but not so low that I couldn't see out. The countryside whipped by fast. It felt like I was watching a moving picture. We streaked past farms and groves and signs that touted fresh citrus and the power of God. As we neared Moccasin Branch Bridge, I grew amazed, for it appeared as if every man, woman, child, and dog in Lily had gathered along the western bank. How they knew to be there, how they knew Billy Jackson was going to attempt to take his life right there on the slim white shoreline of that brown-water river, was a mystery to me. I hadn't yet learned that in a small town everybody knows everything instantly.

I eyed those busybody folks and was seized by a funny thought: It would be a good time to rob the bank.  Then my heart stumbled a beat, as if it had gotten caught on one of the cypress snags in Moccasin Branch, and I searched that crowd for my daddy. But I did not see him. I looked to Phoebe, whose cinnamon skin was flushed and clammy. Her dark eyes were dry, which was a terrible thing to see. My mama always said the Devil steals tears--keeps them in a box with your name on it so that when you go to hell you will spend eternity crying the stored-up teardrops of a lifetime.

Mama struggled and cursed as she tried to get out of the police cruiser,but you can't open the back door of a cop car if you're on the inside, so the three of us were trapped. I felt a fit coming on, one of those leg-kicking, arm-flailing, wailing fits, when Mama had one of her own. She let loose with a string of cussing so potent it caused Jack the policeman, who was standing outside talking with another of his own kind, to blush.

He opened the door and said, "Sorry, Glory, I just need to make sure what was what. We've got Billy in custody. He's okay."

Jack nodded in the direction of another police car, and I craned my neck to see, but there were so many people milling about that my view was blocked. "You want that we take him in, or that you carry him home?"

Mama stared straight ahead, her eyes hard as steel. She said, "Take the son-of-a-bitch in."

Then she gathered her pocketbook into the crook of her arm and took me by the hand. I slipped my other one in Phoebe's. Pretending we were women of grace, wearing our pride like long black veils, we slipped out of the cruiser and threaded our way through the gawking crowd--friends and acquaintances all. Some said, "Glory, can we help?" but my mama responded to no one. She fixed her granite gaze on the storm clouds rising upon the horizon and pulled us right along behind her.

We got in Daddy's white Impala. Under the sun's glare not yet shadowed by the approaching clouds, the Impala seemed only a glimmer, a ghost car that would ramble through the Florida scrub toward a future thick with questions and grief.

Mama drove us home. She kept her lips sealed, and through instinct and experience, Phoebe and I knew to keep our own traps shut.

We had a shotgun house on a lake no one had ever bothered to name, in the middle of a citrus grove owned by Mr. Bailey T. Watson, a rich man who lived a lifetime north of us in a mansion that overlooked Lake Panasoffkee. We rented our house from him, and it was okay. The grove was a good place to hide.

As we walked up the front porch steps, Mama, who looked whipped but stubborn, said, "You girls play Chinese checkers or something. Do anything but fight."

My sister said, "Can we have a Co'-Cola?"

"Yes, you may, but don't drink too much."

Then Mama and Phoebe went into the kitchen, and I stayed on the porch and looked through the cracks in the wooden floor slats and said, "Here, kitty, kitty," because there was a wild cat that sometimes stayed under there and I wanted to tame her, thought that would be a fun thing to do.

Phoebe tired to catch the screen door with her foot as she came out with two Co'-Colas, but she wasn't fast enough. It made a popgun sound. From somewhere inside the house Mama yelled, "Damn you, young'uns!"

I took my cold drink. "Why do you think she's making Daddy stay in jail?"

Phoebe ran her finger down the long crest of her nose. "Try to teach him a lesson, I guess."

I took three big swallows, and as the soothing fluid rushed down my throat I wondered what kind of lesson could he possibly learn--not to play with guns, not to make Mama angry, not to do anything to attract attention? That must be it--I acted poorly whenever I desired sweet attention. Maybe all my daddy needed, more than anything in this world, was for my mama to be Jesus-like, all-forgiving, and gentle to little animals.

Phoebe looked out toward the grove. Its straight, orderly rows of citrus trees were shaddy and often cool. She swatted a fly off her forehead and said, "I wish the rain would come soon."

"Me too."

I liked the way I sounded when I agreed with her. I thought I came off as a grown up, trying on my big sister's words and ideas rather than my mama's high heels and beads, which always landed me in trouble. I blew on the lip of the Co'-Cola bottle, coaxing from it a long, sad whistle. Daddy could whistle like nobody's business. Was he in that jail cell all alone, or had they thrown him in with a bunch of robbers and murderers? Was he wearing one of those striped prison outfits? Was he safe? I didn't have any answers. "Sister." I patted her leg. "Will you play me one game?"

Phoebe looked down at me as if I was a pest, but then her sharp black eyes softened and she said, "Yeah, Bird, I'll play you a game."

We sat on the porch, Indian-style, placing the marbles on the Chinese checkers board. Mama came out, pocketbook on arm, paper sack in hand. She'd put on fresh makeup and had changed out of that nice linen dress and high heels she'd been wearing earlier and into a blue wraparound skirt, a white cotton blouse, and flats. Despite the dark circles under her eyes, she looked comfortable, newly scrubbed.

"There's egg salad in the refrigerator," she said. "Phoebe, fix you and your sister a sandwich while I'm gone."

Phoebe didn't look at Mama, just kept on with those marbles, glaring at them as if they were being unruly and she was trying to make them obey. "Where are you going?" she asked.

"To take your daddy something to eat." Mama bit down on her bottom lip. I saw her whole face start to tremble and then pull itself back together. She took a deep breath, stared over our heads, and in a justifying tone of voice--as if we were accusing her of something--she said, "He's probably hungry by now."

"I guess so," Phoebe said.

A mockingbird started singing, and in some faraway field a tractor droned to life. A wisp of hair fell in Mama's eyes. "I've got to go," she said. Then she hurried down the steps, settled into the car, fiddled with the keys. Had to try three times before that heap of wheels and metal would start, but once she got it going, she hollered, "You two behave while I'm away. Bird, don't give your sister a hard time. If your head hurts, put some ice on it."

Then Mama was gone, disappeared down the road in the white Impala. A clap of thunder cracked the heavens, and a flock of sparrows flew from the live oak that overhung our tin roof, taking cover in the grove.

Phoebe seemed unmoved by the rumbling sky. Just kept her eyes on the Chinese checkers game board and its perfect triangles filled with marbles of such luscious colors I wanted to eat them. But they wouldn't be sweet, no they wouldn't. Sister, she looked beautiful, staring down at the board, her face framed in shadows and cloud-spangled light. I thought, She would make the most perfect angel.

I watched as she stretched over the board to flick off a fallen leaf. Underneath her thin cotton shell, I saw how fragile the bones in her back were, far too sliver-prone, far too light to support a pair of wings.

Something tickled my arm. I looked down; a ladybug walked among my many freckles. My hairs must have seemed like a forest to a creature so small. I brought my arm close to my lips and softly blew, my breath a gust of wind to send the ladybug on her way. She flew off to another world, maybe a blade of grass, maybe a flower with a pool of water cupped in its petals. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, stared into the heat. "Do you think she's gonna yell at Daddy; do you think he still has that gun?"

My wingless sister moved a red marble. I thought I heard the cartilage holding her skeleton together snap as she said, "Who cares, Bird. Who the hell really cares."

Meet the Author

Connie May Fowler is an essayist and screenwriter as well as the author of two previous novels; Sugar Cage and River of Hidden Dreams. She lives in Florida with her husband, Mika Fowler.

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Before Women Had Wings 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read a lot of books about child abuse. This book was very moving in some parts. I think the ending was a little rocky. It ended kind of abruptly. Personally, I would like to know what happened once the girls and Miss Zora get to Florida and if the mom ever recovers. The end of the book where Bird was getting the last beating, brought tears to my eyes. The way Connie May Fowler describes the child abuse and the events that take place following the fathers death were very good. The story line of the book was wonderful and the only thing that I did not like about the book was that it left you hanging at the end. As a reader, you never find out if the book has a happy ending or if the mom stays a drunk and the girls stay in Florida. That was really the only drawback on the book.
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
This novel puts a real face on abuse This book was next to impossible to put down. The author did an excellent job of showing an abuser (the mother) as both victimizer and victim and was a sober reminder that those little children who are abused all too often grow up to become abusers themselves. In both the real world of criminal justice and in books we all too often see a portrait of abusers as evil people, whitewashing over the fact that they have often been abused themselves. One wonders what kind of people Bird and Phoebe would become if there had not been any intervention. The story instead ends on a hopeful note that perhaps the cycle of abuse might stop.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, was going to delete off my "To Read List" so glad I didn't. This book broke my heart, made laugh and gave me hope because it shows that there is still good people in this world.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book to everyone. It was tragic and yet at the end you knew that there was hope for everyone. Ms Fowler's treatment of the mother showed deep insight. Things are never black and white. Every women in the world should read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before Women Had Wings was one of Oprah's early selections--and for good reason--it is a classic. The writing exposes the raw emotions of the characters through their dialoge, attitudes and the things left unsaid as much as the things made obvious...You can feel the confusion and helplessness, anger and frustration.. and the pride in the characters...one of the most compelling books about abuse on the market. Beautifully written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was absolutely awesome i loved it. When reading this book it made it feel so real like i was right there when everythign happened. The author did a great job going into detail. Over all this bok is great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a very good book but no exactly one that is life changing and inspirational. I only felt small emotion but at least there were emotions. I really do like Fowlers style of writing but she just needs to write a book that is dynamic and has deep characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you need a book to read, this should be it. It is the very best book i have ever read. Connie does such a good job and makes the book so realistic. Bird reaches out to you in more ways than one. connie shows you abuse through the eyes of a child and how incredibly funny it can be while at the same time, it is sad. Bird is so innocent, yet she's not.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my most favorite book I have ever read. Connie Mae Fowler has made me laugh, and made me cry, and made me understand some things about child abuse. The characters were so developed, I found myself 'looking' for Bird when I went out! An outstanding contribution!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book narrates on the growing process of women throughout all ages. It's about women struggling with each other, attempting to find themselves. I loved the message of one being the master of restricting yourself or setting yourself free. And how powerful letting go plays a huge role.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before Women Had Wings is southern writing at it's finest. The characters were so real and believable, I almost had myself convinced that I was Bird. Would love to read more by this author
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was the best book i have ever read.....i loved it so much i read it twice and let all my friends and family borrow, they all loved it as much as i did!!!