Little Bird of Heaven
Oates' thirty-sixth novel grapples with familiar themes: the rocky underside of marriage, racial injustice, childhood trauma, sexual obsession, and the ways gender plays out among various subsets of the U.S. working classes.
The story is set in fictitious Sparta, New York, a once thriving town seven-to-eight hours north of Manhattan. A former center of industry, the area was left high-and-dry when the factories that employed almost everyone relocated in the 1970s. Within a decade, those left in Sparta were scraping by any way they could, with a sizable cohort involved in the sale and production of crystal meth. Yes, the Sparta of Little Bird of Heaven is hoping for a comeback, but until then, most of the locals seem resigned to quelling their boredom and their nerves with drugs and drinks.
It’s a bleak landscape, made worse when thirty-four-year-old Zoe Kruller, a popular—and beautiful—Caucasian lounge singer, is found dead in her bedroom, her throat slashed and her head bashed in. Immediately after the body is found, tongues wag and there is rampant speculation: Did her long-time lover, the married Eddy Diehl, kill her? Or might her ex-husband, the part-Indian Delroy Kruller, be responsible? Some suggested that Zoe turned tricks to support a heroin habit, their gossip implying that any number of men might have done the deed.
There’s fodder for a solid who-done-it here, but Oates goes further, zooming in on the psychological conundrum facing several of Zoe’s survivors. Krista Diehl, Eddy’s adolescent daughter, is introduced first. From her perch, Eddy is an adoring, if substance abusing, parent. While her child-like disregard for her mother is maddening, her need to be daddy’s little girl is heartbreaking. What’s more, since Krista refuses to entertain the possibility of her father’s guilt, she fiercely defends against all suggestions of his complicity in Zoe’s demise.
Aaron Kruller, Zoe and Delroy’s son, also enters the mix. Aaron is one hundred percent certain that Eddy killed his mom. Sure, his folks had a combative relationship, and sure, his dad drinks too much, but Aaron can’t wrap his mind around Delroy being Zoe’s killer. As far as Aaron is concerned, Eddy is guilty and he is filled with rage that Eddy was investigated but never charged.
Not surprisingly, when Krista and Aaron—both teenagers—find themselves in the same place shortly after the murder, things go awry. But not in the way you’d expect. Suffice it to say that there’s sexual tension between them—perhaps it’s the fine line between love and hate. Their encounter is brief, but the possibility of a violent outcome hovers menacingly throughout.
In fact, it’s such an ugly moment, that neither Krista nor Aaron can forget it. Seventeen years later, when the two meet again for the first time since the incident, sparks fly and it is here that Oates’ writing is at its best. Emotionally gripping and creepily unsettling, the scene questions the power we give the past and peers into the long-term effects of unprocessed childhood trauma. That Krista is eventually able to take control of her life comes almost as an epiphany. And Aaron? The book offers no clues. Whether he will ever move past his mom’s death, his dad’s negligence, and his own worst impulses remains an open question.
One of Zoe’s signature songs spoke of the “little bird of heaven right here in my hand.” As Krista moves forward, she reminds us of our power to overcome the damage of a traumatic childhood. Maybe that’s one form of heaven: Forgiving, if not forgetting, so that we can be fully present in the here-and-now.