February Read of the Month: “Gradle Bird,” by J.C. Sasser

J.C. Sasser

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Rodgers 

Can a savior come in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl in a green prom dress and cat-eyed glasses? A phenomenal debut novel by gifted storyteller J. C. Sasser, Gradle Bird flips southern gothic fiction on its head and turns ghosts stories inside out. Forget everything you thought you knew about this genre and all preconceived notions about coming-of-age stories set in the contemporary south.

From the moment we meet Gradle and her grandpa, Leonard, we are reeled into a gritty story about survival, regrets, loss, forgiveness, and eventually redemption. If you’ve lost faith in humanity, pick up this book and get absorbed in this fictional world where love and devotion sometimes push boundaries

Gradle is empathetic. We should all be so lucky to have her as a friend. She is scrappy and wise and loyal to the point of heartbreak. Her tender heart leads her where others want the best for her—or want something from her.

When Grandpa is summoned by a letter to leave the Fireside Motel off I-16 in Georgia, the only home Gradle has ever known, they load up his vintage Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe and head to the falling-down two-story house on Spivey Street, once a showplace in the small southern town of Janesboro, Georgia. Rumor has it the house is haunted by Miss Annalee Spivey.  Even the locals cross to the other side of the street to avoid this old place with its porch swing and attic window.

Once Grandpa and Gradle pull into the driveway on a rainy day and stare up at the house entangled in moon vine, nothing will ever be the same. From now on, each character’s actions and motivations—not just those of Grandpa and Gradle—will impact other characters in this communion of saints and sinners where past and present mingle.

Gradle is fearless, an observer of life and the human condition. She has a heart for the outcast and downtrodden: the unsavory Sonny Joe revving his engine and flexing his wiry muscles, for instance, or the Bible-thumping crippled preacher-boy, Ceif. Then there’s the one and only D-5 Delvis Miles The Lone Singer, strumming his guitar and fighting off outlaws at the edge of town.

From its cover to its chapter headings, Gradle Bird is a work of art. Pay attention to the little bird on the chapter headings: It hops around from chapter to chapter.

If you’ve ever had to scrape together money to buy food, pay rent, put a roof over your head, this book is for you. If you’ve ever lived with pain and regret and guilt, regardless of whether you live on the outskirts of society or in the finest house in town, or if you’ve ever loved someone so much that your heart leaps and dances and waits just to be in his or her presence, this book is for you.

This book, then, is for everybody.  We’ve all been one these people at some point. Even the richest among us have loved.

The book’s striking imagery will stay with me for some time: the green prom dress, the baptismal font in the abandoned church, Delvis’s shack near the town dump, and the attic in the Spivey house that seemed designed for music and dancing.

You might want to grab a hanky as you near the end of this novel, which made me simultaneously weep and smile. Gradle Bird was shortlisted in the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom novel competition and was selected as a 2017 Pulpwood Queens book club pick, Deep South Magazine’s Summer Reading Pick, Trio 18, and SIBA Spring Okra pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.

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