A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Crystal Wilkinson’s ‘The Birds of Opulence’ will enthrall Kentucky readers

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

With those twenty-nine words, author Crystal Wilkinson lured me into her stunning novel, “The Birds of Opulence.” With no fanfare, this rara avis swooped in, ruffled its feathers, and snagged me in two breathtaking sentences.

Right then I wanted to flop down on the sofa and read the whole thing in one sitting, a cup of tea in my favorite mug, the one with the chip I insist on keeping because it reminds me of home. In the age of COVID-19, however, such downhome reading binges evade me, and friends tell me I am not alone. We snatch a few paragraphs here and there on phones, tablets, and laptops, as time allows. Some listen to audio books while working out or folding laundry. Others borrow from the library but many of those books stack up on the bedside table unread, casualties of upended lives.

(Image courtesy of Crystal Wilkinson, Facebook)

Resisting the impulse to drop everything and start reading, I knew instinctively this was the kind of book I’d want to savor. Reading it would require time and space so I could set it aside while I leaned back, closed my eyes, and let the language wash over me.

This is not to suggest that “The Birds of Opulence” is a pleasant stroll down a country lane. Sometimes, reading it is like walking barefoot in the summertime: Just when you are moving along comfortably, you hit a rough patch of sharp stones that pierce the tender flesh beneath the calluses.

The realities of rural life, as experienced by a community of Black families with deep roots in Opulence, Kentucky, are woven into the novel. Like most families, the people are blessed, cursed, loved, and loathed, sometimes all at once.

The story begins on the day Yolanda is born in 1962. The sun is peeping through silver maples while the dog attacks a possum who plays dead to stay alive. At first, the unborn baby is the narrator. And then we meet her father, great-grandmother, grandma, mother, and big brother Kevin. Also known as Kee Kee, he was “already learning the ways of women” as he played under the kitchen table, watching “their feet moving from one side of the green linoleum to the other.”

When an unknown bird freckled with yellow dots perches on the window sill, Mama Minnie knows it is time for the baby to be born. “This knowing, reading signs, was as familiar as her own two hands,” the reader learns.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

The birthing begins as the women work in the squash patch. A quilt is spread on the ground. Kevin is told not to watch, but, like him, we stay and bear witness, even when we might want to look away.

At the same time the squalling baby is born, “slippery and wiggling,” her father, Joe Brown, is working at one of his many jobs to make a living. While he fixes things, he tells himself stories of his boyhood and remembers life in the city. He does not always fit into life in his rural community, and, like Kee Kee, he is puzzled by his family. His love for his wife, Lucy, endures, because “He had learned how to blend into this river of crazy women.”

Kentucky Humanities has chosen “The Birds of Opulence” for its 2021 Kentucky Reads project. As a result, the novel will be the center of statewide conversations on the dynamics of family and community, the strength of women, and the stigmas surrounding mental illness.

The award-winning novel examines relationships within individual families, and between families. There are tales of friendship, passion, sexuality, betrayal, longing, and renewal. By the end of the book, in 1995, the old homeplace is more rundown than ever. Some residents have stayed put in Opulence, and others have moved to the city. Kids who went off to college never moved back. Town has changed; the old Greyhound station has been converted to a restaurant, with the “long-front-porch feel of a Cracker Barrel.”

“Mama gone. Granny gone. Roots still here,” Lucy chants.

In the end, the last person we see is Joe Brown, still working, still thinking of “his sweet Lucy.”

He does not dwell on the changes; he sees possibilities.

He watches the sun slide in like a stream of butter. He’ll notice the limbs on the birch tree out there in Sam Eaton’s yard, fresh with green buds. Then he’ll see the three birds up high in a tree, and he’ll clap his hands and laugh again, knowing those three women are there with him now too. Still.

For more information about Crystal Wilkinson and “Birds of Opulence,” go to www.kentuckypress.com. For information about Kentucky Humanities’ Kentucky Reads Project, log on to www.kyhumanities.org.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment