Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: Where the Sweet Bird Sings

By Jami Deise

Thanks to companies like and 23andMe, genealogy has become a big business. With help from the internet, tracking down one’s ancestors has become a popular hobby. Discovering that a great-great-grandfather was a Civil War hero or emigrated from Ireland on the Titanic can be enormously satisfying. What many hobbyists don’t know, however, is that much of this research was originally compiled by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As Mormons believe that souls can be baptized after death, they are meticulous about researching their ancestors so they can be welcomed into the faith after a conversion. (In fact, this was a point of contention after some new Mormons baptized Jewish ancestors who died in the Holocaust, a practice that the Church discontinued.) Even to non-believers, though, Mormons have always been generous about sharing their findings.

Author Ella Joy Olsen, who lives in Salt Lake City, utilizes her deep knowledge of these practices to craft a story that hinges upon the vagaries of fate, love, and DNA. Emma Hazelton’s son Joey died a year ago of Canavan Disease, a genetic disorder with ties to Eastern European Jewish groups that requires both parents to be carriers. While Emma’s husband Noah wants to talk about having another child and the steps they would have to take to ensure a healthy baby, the death of Emma’s grandfather Joe puts her in another tailspin. Discovering new things about Grandpa, Emma starts to question how a disease mostly found in Jewish families took her son. And Noah’s pressure makes things even worse – Emma isn’t sure whether they should stay married, or split up in order to try to have children with other—non-carrier—people.

Emma turns out to be descended from Emmeline and Nathanial, who are featured in Olsen’s debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn. While Emmeline was my favorite character from this novel, at the same time, her inclusion meant that the mystery Emma works to solve is already known to anyone who read the first book. Olsen also gets distracted with a subplot about Emma’s brother, which turns into a convoluted way to make the same point she makes with Emmaline and Nathanial’s story.

Even so, Emma’s grief over Joey and her inner conflict over her marriage to Noah make her a compelling character. What does it mean when the person you love carries the same defective gene that you do? What does that say about the nature of attraction? Some genetic diseases have their roots in helpful mutations—the mutation that causes sickle cell disease might protect against malaria when only one copy of the gene is defective, and researchers now believe that cystic fibrosis conveys a similar effect for tuberculosis. Nature herself seems to be saying that people should mate with those who are as different from each other as possible.

This is deep stuff, and while sometimes Olsen brushes the surface rather than diving in all the way, the work she’s put into the story is obvious. Also absorbing are the meticulous scenes of Emma’s research at the Family History Library on the grounds of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, the largest such library in the world.

Fans of Olsen’s debut novel will enjoy Where the Sweet Bird Sings. Even those who do not find the story completely satisfying will find themselves signing up for when they finish.

Thanks to Ella Joy Olsen for the book in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

Janine said...

Sounds interesting