May 2015

Natalie Sypolt


Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

If something that was once no longer is, how can we prove it was ever there? If a girl was born with wings, but her parents saw only a deformity and had them removed, are they wings still? In Above Us Only Sky, Michele Young-Stone weaves a graceful narrative that traverses decades and continents, and tries to make solid the ghosts of the past, be they wings, girls, or entire cultures.

Above Us Only Sky is a pieced narrative that reads like a beautifully layered tapestry. Through the voices of Prudence, primarily, the Old Man, and a few other essential characters, the reader is gently moved from the twenty-first century to the times before, during, and after World War II. History has preserved the story of Hitler and his Nazis; however, we often forget that the atrocities of the Holocaust did not happen solely in Germany. Many cultures and ethnic groups became targets, including Lithuanians, who were displaced from their homes, taken to concentration camps, and often outright murdered for no reason other than their nationality. Through Prudence, granddaughter of the Old Man (Fredrick) and his wife Ingeburg -- both sole survivors in their families and who immigrated to America after WWII -- we come to understand that stories are the only way to preserve the past and make real the ghosts that haunt.

Prudence doesn't know her grandparents until she is sixteen and the Old Man seeks her out, hoping to see something of his lost sisters in her. There, in the girl's starburst eyes, he sees Daina, the youngest of his three sisters who he believed had been killed in Lithuania nearly fifty years before. Daina had wings. This is when Prudence realizes that she was not alone and that "[her] family birthed birds." While Prudence's thin "bifurcated protrusions" had been removed when she was five months old, she'd always felt their ghost, pulling at her shirt and trying to break free of the confines. When Prudence meets the Old Man, she says, "It feels like we've always known each other, like we're spokes on the same bicycle wheel. We've been part of the same vehicle for as long as Lithuania has been a nation, since our homeland was a grand duchy, the wealthiest land in Europe."

People, places, events, and time are strung together, forever influencing one another, even without direct knowledge or contact. The structure of Above Us Only Sky reminds us that our lives are ripples of some long ago central pebble tossed in a lake. Prudence says, "I know all about ties, lines, rope, grass, cords, glue, paste, knots, yarn, floss, the stuff of nests stringing us together. I understand. I think I've always understood." The past cannot be forgotten because it is not really the past: the ripples and echoes are threaded through the present and the future.

Young-Stone beautifully balances historical facts of Lithuania and human tragedy of the Holocaust with elements of quirk and magical realism. This might seem unlikely and difficult -- a Holocaust book that includes women with wings and boys with psychic visions and a photographer who doesn't grow old -- but it all works because the magical elements don't seem so impossible under this author's masterful hand. If we live in a world where 11 million people were exterminated, chambers created for the act of mass murder, graves dug by the very men who were to inhabit them, babies dropped out of train cars by their mothers so that they would not have to face the death camps -- can we not also accept that we live in a world where there are women who are born with wings? Does one really sound more impossible than the other? If we can believe the worst, maybe, at least for the course of a novel, we can also believe that some people are birds, just waiting to fly home.

Scars remind Prudence of her wings, but Prudence and the Old Man know that it is stories that keep the dead from disappearing. After the Old Man's death, Prudence says, "His stories play in my head like an epic film with a great score. [...] You know his story." Through Above Us Only Sky, we learn not only the story of family, but of place and time. This is perhaps a story we thought we knew, but Young-Stone shows us that there are stories demanding to be told, and which, like the photographer Lukas Blasczkiewicz -- the only one to catch an image of Daina's wings on film says, "[w]ill not succumb to history."

Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451657678
256 pages