60 pages 2 hours read

Alice Hoffman

Blackbird House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2004, Alice Hoffman’s novel Blackbird House chronicles a house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and its inhabitants over a 200-year span. The story, which invokes elements of magical realism, begins during the War of 1812 and ends in the present day. Shifting between first-person and third-person point-of-view, the novel delves into the themes of Love as Motivation, Resilience Resulting from Adversity, and The Power of Place in Shaping Lives.

This guide refers to the 2005 Ballantine Books edition of the text.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of rape, domestic violence, and death by suicide.

Plot Summary

The first chapter, “The Edge of the World,” describes how the Hadley family has purchased land and built a house so that John can quit fishing. However, he and his boys, Vincent and Isaac, go to sea one more time, and Isaac, only 10, brings his pet blackbird along. After a bad storm at sea, they’re presumed dead. Coral refuses to mourn and instead cultivates their farm. Not until the blackbird, now white, returns does she acknowledge their deaths. However, Vincent survives; he’s captured by the British and, still a boy, imprisoned in England. After seven years, Vincent returns home, reuniting with Coral.

In “The Witch of Truro,” Ruth Declan endures her parents’ deaths and a fire that destroys her home. With only her beloved cows, she relocates to the beach until two women kindly lead her to Lysander Wynn’s farm, the same place the Hadleys once inhabited. Like Ruth, Lysander has endured tragedy, losing his leg in a fishing accident. Having sworn off the sea, he works as a blacksmith. When the women arrive with Ruth, he agrees to provide her with shelter and eventually comes to admire her. After learning that she longs for a red pear tree, he completes a two-week journey to procure one as a sign of his love for her.

In “The Token,” the narrative switches to the first-person perspective of Garnet, Ruth’s eldest daughter. Her father, Lysander, died recently, and Garnet now cares for her baby sister while her mother mourns. Garnet seeks advice from a nomadic woman, who instructs her to bury her mother’s most precious item in the earth to get what she most needs. When Garnet buries the necklace of halibut teeth that was once her father’s, 12 rubies and one emerald appear, giving her the means to leave. When she departs with her sister, their mother joins them.

“Insulting the Angels” shifts to a third-person narrator. One morning on the beach, Lucinda Parker meets Larkin Howard. Lucinda plans to leave her baby, the result of rape, when Larkin offers help. When he suggests buying the abandoned Hadley farm for her, Lucinda reluctantly agrees. Larkin obtains a promissory note, travels to Boston with Lucinda and the baby, and earns money by enlisting in the army. However, Lucinda disappears, having cut her hair and stolen his uniform. Larkin and the baby return to the farm.

“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” focuses on Violet Cross, a young woman who falls in love with a zoologist who is in town to investigate a mysterious sea monster. Violet becomes romantically involved with him, so she plants false evidence of the creature to keep him there. George West, who fishes with Violet’s father, knows her secret. Although the zoologist remains, he falls in love with her sister, Huley. Blind with rage and knowing that her sister can’t swim, Violet pushes Huley into the pond, only to save her moments later. In the water, Violet thinks only of George.

In “Lionheart,” which begins in 1908, Violet and George are married and have seven children, the eldest of whom is named Lion. Despite his reluctance, Lion applies for and receives a scholarship to Harvard. Once he departs, he never returns and ultimately becomes a professor of mathematics in London. Eventually, Lion marries and has a son. Three months later, however, he and his wife die in an automobile accident, and Violet crosses the ocean to retrieve her grandson.

In “The Conjurer’s Handbook,” Lion Jr., marries a Jewish woman, Dorey, a guide for American troops liberating the concentration camps. When the couple visits Violet, she lays elaborate traps to drive Dorey away. However, Dorey deftly maneuvers around them all. After she saves Violet from drowning, the women decide to share Lion.

A decade later, the Farrell family resides in the house in “The Wedding of Snow and Ice.” Amid a snowstorm, Grace and Jim send their son Jamie to shovel the neighbor’s path. When Jamie arrives, he finds Mrs. Brooks, naked and bloody, and learns that she has killed her husband. Jamie helps dispose of the body. When he returns without the shovel, Grace goes to the Brooks house and stays a long time. Upon her return, she tells Jim that Mr. Brooks has disappeared.

“India” switches to the first-person perspective of Maya Cooper. Her parents, Naomi and John (Risha), settle in Blackbird House. Maya and her brother, Kalkin, resent their poverty and their parents. Upon graduating, Kalkin leaves for Los Angeles, California, but dies in a car crash not long after. Maya retreats to a neighbor’s house, avoiding her parents. Leaving with a scholarship to Columbia, she only returns once her father dies. Maya remorsefully admits that she can never escape Blackbird House.

Returning to the third-person perspective, “The Pear Tree” focuses on the Stanleys, who inhabit the house only during the summer. The townsfolk dislike the family, especially their strange son, Dean. Billy Griffon agrees to renovate the Stanleys’ summer kitchen. Drawn to their property even years after finishing the project, Billy frequently passes by. One night, he discovers that Dean has hanged himself from the pear tree.

In “The Summer Kitchen,” Sam and Katherine impulsively buy the house on a break from their daughter Emma’s leukemia treatments in Boston. When Emma is well, they spend their summer on the Cape. Walker, Emma’s older brother, becomes increasingly resentful of Katherine. He blames many accidents on a “blackbird.” After receiving encouragement from Emma, Katherine recognizes that she needs to show her love to Walker.

The final chapter, “Wish You Were Here,” follows 30-year-old Emma, whose parents have just given her Blackbird House. Divorced and without children, she’s unhappy. Despite her initial plans to sell the house, Emma rediscovers her love for it and relishes her time there. The narrative comes full circle when she meets a 10-year-old boy and invites him to make turnip chutney.

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