Something happened in the summer of 1976 that changed the lives of Robyn, then nine years old, and her older brother, Christopher, aka “Kit,” as well as their mother, Jemima, and stepfather, Matthew. With school out for the summer, Robyn and Kit spent their days swimming and spending time with their best friends until Jemima brought home a crying woman and her young son. Soon enough, they were followed by her abusive, enraged husband.
Robyn encountered a strange man in a cowboy hat at the pool. Even though she knew better than to talk to strangers, she accepted his gift: two smooth pieces of wood carved into the shape of babies swaddled in cloth. From that point on, nothing was ever the same again. The cowboy continued following Robyn and Jemima became the focus of gossip about her attempt to help the woman and her subsequent interactions with the police.
Worse, Robyn knew that her family members were keeping secrets from her. And despite her repeated questioning, she received no answers.
Now it’s 1988, and Robyn and Kit have returned home to face their past. Robyn remains haunted by guilt, convinced that she played a part in the tragic events that unfolded during that fateful summer. Ironically, she has kept her feelings a secret from everyone, including Kit. But Robyn is determined to uncover the truth about what really happened and will not stop until she does so.
After all, if you were one-half evil, wouldn’t you want to know about the other half?
A Little Bird Told Me, the debut novel from Marianne Holmes, is narrated from Robyn’s perspective, alternating between her experiences in 1976 and twelve years later in 1988 when she and Kit have returned to their childhood home. Holmes does not reveal where the two have been during the ensuing years.
But Robyn has been tormented for twelve years by what she believes was her role in the events that occurred that life-altering summer. Holmes keeps what actually happened shrouded in mystery until the book’s action-packed conclusion. (Even when the truth is finally revealed, not all questions are answered, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.) Thus, in addition to being a compelling mystery about the fate of Jemima, the book is an intimate exploration of Robyn’s emotional pain as a result of secrets kept for so many years.
Among the greatest strengths of A Little Bird Told Me is the depiction of the sibling relationship between Robyn and Kit. They disagree and squabble. Kit is not convinced that returning home was a good idea — it is apparent that he has been cajoled into it by Robyn. He is also not enthusiastic about some of the means Robyn intends to employ in order to discover the truth. Typically, Robyn seeks Kit’s admiration and approval. Ultimately, though, they protect each other, a characteristic Holmes explores to great effect during both time periods in which the story takes place. With her deft handling, their relationship is believable, tender, and heart-breaking.
A Little Bird Told Me also effectively demonstrates the differences between Robyn’s perceptions of what is happening around her during the two time frames. In 1976, she is a mere child, as bewildered by what is transpiring around her as by what the adults in her life and her older brother are not telling her. Undaunted, she continues asking questions, even though her voice is not heard. When she and Kit return twelve years later, she is a young adult woman who has been irrevocably changed by not only the events of 1976, but what has happened during the time between. She is fiercely determined to find out the fate and whereabouts of an unidentified woman — Jemima? — and make peace with the truth. She is so driven that she is willing to risk her own safety, as well as Kit’s. She visits a mysterious man in prison — the man in the cowboy hat? — over Kit’s objections in order to get information. His identity is finally confirmed near the end of the story, but it is clear that he poses a credible threat to both of them. It is equally clear that Robyn is resilient, determined, and will be empowered by and find peace when she also finds the truth.
With Robyn’s emotional journey as the focus, when all secrets are revealed, A Little Bird Told Me proves to be a moving examination of the extreme measures that desperate people are capable of employing in order to keep their loved ones safe. Through the events that change the lives of Robyn, Kit, and their family, Holmes shows how malevolence sometimes forces its unwitting victims to make hasty and short-sighted decisions without the benefit of realizing the long-lasting impact upon all concerned. Lastly, Holmes convincingly and empathetically portrays Robyn’s need for answers that will enable her to finally make peace with and move on from the consequences of an unspeakable tragedy.
A Little Bird Told Me is an impressive debut novel that will leave readers deeply affected by Robyn’s emotional journey to peace and resolution.