The landscape resembles the surface of a distant, inhospitable planet. The air smells of sulfur. Children carry inhalers and adults die young of cancer. There are no trees, no birds, no insects even. Periodically, alarms sound as victims of mining accidents are brought to the hospital or morgue.
This is the world that 13-year-old Jack Hicks inhabits in his Tennessee mining town. Every day, he worries that his father, a miner, will not come home, as happened to his grandfather and his Uncle Amon. His playground is a dried-up pond of toxic waste, where he breaks his arm at the beginning of this gripping middle grade novel.
Elizabeth O. Dulemba’s A Bird on Water Street portrays Jack’s tumultuous thirteenth year, when he loses his uncle in an accident, the mining company lays off half the workers—forcing their families to leave town and Jack’s baseball team to lose its players—and the remaining miners strike against the dangerous conditions that result. As money and food grow scarce because of the shut-down mine, Jack notices life coming back to the town. His family’s garden has its best year ever. Frogs appear in the formerly toxic pond. His best friend Piran’s asthma improves. Birds return.
Readers will cheer for this determined youngster who is torn between his family’s survival and his father’s safety. Jack’s curiosity about the outside world leads him to study trees and birds, and readers share his joy when these appear in his town after the long months of the strike when there isn’t enough food or firewood. Through Jack, readers appreciate the culture of the southern Appalachians and the ties to land and community that make having to move for work seem like a death in the family. Author Dulemba doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the mining company—run by people far away who don’t care about the workers or townspeople, and managers who see themselves as better and more deserving than everyone else. While many things in Jack’s life are beyond his control, his efforts to make changes where he can will captivate and inspire young readers.
Kudos to small publisher Little Pickle Press for publishing this engaging story for middle grade readers that takes on economic injustice, environmental degradation, and young people making a difference.