“The Marsh Bird,” by Anne Brooker James

Anne Brooker James

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The Marsh Bird (Koehler Books Publishing, 2021), by Anne Brooker James, effectively uses the novel format to showcase the Gullah Geechee culture of the sea islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The historical package is sweetened by an unusual love story set amidst the horrors of the Jim Crow era.

The two young stars of the novel are both wounded birds and very likeable. Ben is a white orphan of mysterious origin who finds a home with Henny, a single white man living on the edge of Gullah land who makes a living by weaving cast nets for fishing in the Gullah tradition. Unable to talk because of trauma she witnessed, Tillie is a mixed-race orphan taken in by Aunt Letty, the matriarch of the Gullah community. These two orphans become fast friends and have many adventures on the water in Ben’s little boat and around a deserted tabby house Ben discovers in the woods. Slowly, the story reveals the secrets behind the origins of these children, the nature of Tilly’s trauma, and the truth of their families.

Every novel needs an antagonist, and Junie Savage serves that role in The Marsh Bird. Racist to the bone, Junie and his band of rum-running reprobates terrorize the Gullah community from the moment they show up:

. . . Junie’s appearance was just an unfortunate accident, but fear had surfaced that night, and it couldn’t be forgotten. Jim Crow sat on every branch of every tree watching them and waiting for one move out of line—the white line. Knowing this was a s much a part of their lives as eating, sleeping, and working.

No one is safe after Junie shows up, and he murders several Gullah.

The novel contains some lovely descriptions of the river, swamps, and wildlife along the coast. In one particularly fine passage, Ben paddles his boat around to face the “first crimson glow of morning” as the “flames flushed the sky and sea below,” and Ben remembers the man he called Pop describing the beginning of a day:

It’s magic, Ben. The most magical and beautiful thing I know. Every morning it comes up and makes a new day, dayclean the Gullah call it. All this flaming magic burning away the past and when it’s done it gives us a whole new start. That’s life, son. It comes, it goes, and it comes again.

The author effectively uses a marsh bird as a symbol in the story. On one level, the bird refers to a toy Tilly clutches obsessively when she first appears. The toy is a replica of a sailboat her father carved for her with a bird sitting atop the mast. This keepsake is the only thing Tilly has to remember her parents by. Tilly gives the bird to Ben when he leaves for the war in Europe as a reminder of her love.

While the novel’s characters tend to be all good or all bad rather than nuanced portrayals, and occasionally key transitions that would make scenes clear are missing, the remarkable dive into the Gullah culture more than makes up for these minor issues. Readers are treated to a glimpse of how the Gullah celebrated holidays and how they lived everyday life, as well as how their lives changed with the times.

Anne Brooker James was born in Tampa, Florida, to pioneer families. She worked as a journalist and food columnist. She and her husband lived for a few years on Spring Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina. James drew on her experiences in the Lowcountry to write The Marsh Bird, her first novel, which was published on her ninetieth birthday. And what a special birthday present—to hold her precious book in her hands and offer it to appreciative readers!

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