Above Us Only Sky
(20150, a magical realism
book by Michele Young-Stone, follows a young girl born with wings who goes searching for the secrets of her family’s past. Praised for its lyrical prose and careful characterization, the book is a favorite with book club readers. Young-Stone is the author of three books all of which involve elements of fantasy, magical realism, and historical fiction. She worked as a high school and middle school English teacher before studying and writing fiction full-time. She is currently working on her next novel.
Prudence Vilkas is the main character. The narrative moves in perspective between modern-day Prudence and her teenage self. Present-day Prudence is in her thirties and works as an ornithologist; she’s devoted to studying birds. This makes sense to Prudence as she was born with a set of wings. Her parents, believing they were a birth defect, had a doctor amputate them. Forever scared, and she spent much of her younger years trying to understand.
Teenage Prudence, back in the 1980s, is especially preoccupied with her absent wings. She can still feel them like ghosts on her back even if she cannot see them anymore. As far as she knows, she is the only member of the family born with such a characteristic; she feels more like an anomaly than part of the family. She soon learns, however, that she is not the only woman with wings—they are an integral part of her family’s heritage.
Another important character in the book is Prudence’s Lithuanian grandfather, known as the “Old Man.” A World War II survivor and terminally ill, he doesn’t expect to live much longer. Although he doesn’t speak much about the War, he has many stories left in him to share. Sadly, for Prudence, she does not meet her grandfather until she is sixteen, only meeting him because he seeks her out first.
The Old Man hopes that Prudence resembles at least one of his sisters whom he lost during the War. He can still remember them vividly, but it would mean the world to him to see them one last time before he passes. When he first sees Prudence, he realizes that she looks startlingly like his youngest sister, Daina.
Prudence is captivated by this knowledge. For the first time, she feels part of the family. She spends a lot of time with the Old Man, listening to his stories about his family and their struggles during the War. Most importantly for Prudence, she discovers that Daina also had wings. This gives Prudence comfort she’s never known before—at least until she meets a handsome young boy who can see the ghostly shape of her wings.
The Old Man tells Prudence stories from many generations back in time. His stories span the period between the late nineteenth century and the rebellions against Russian Tsarist rule in Eastern Europe, to the 1990s, when Lithuania finally secures its independence. Each generation of her family has at least one female with wings. Although she will never meet these women, Prudence feels as if she knows them, because she knows the burden they carried. However, she resents her parents for having the wings removed, because she will never get to see them in all their glory.
Meanwhile, Prudence begins a relationship with the boy who can see her wings. For the first time, she feels that she truly knows her place in the world; others, not just her family members, accept her. She doesn’t have to hide in front of him, and he thinks her scars are beautiful. Moreover, she feels that her ancestors are reaching out to her from beyond the grave, guiding her to where she is meant to be.
Each of these women suffered harrowing tragedy and turmoil, even if they did have wings. They were all stifled and trapped by their circumstances. However, life does not have to be that way for Prudence. Although she does not have physical wings, she can still, metaphorically, fly, and she can choose who she wants to be. Above Us Only Sky
brings together themes of embracing our heritage and becoming our own person.
Prudence realizes, although the Old Man wanted to see his family, he came to her for an even greater purpose—to ensure that the past doesn’t die. He cannot die without knowing the stories from the past and the struggles of the Lithuanians are carried forward by a new generation. Forgetting the past is dangerous because we forget the horrors and do not learn from them.
Ultimately, for Prudence, life isn’t necessarily what she wants it to be. Her mother and father split up, and the boy she loves drifts away from her. The Old Man will die. However, Prudence doesn’t feel lost or adrift. She feels in control of herself, and she has the confidence to beat her metaphorical wings to fly wherever she wants to go.