Twelve year-old Little John spends his summer days helping his father care for trees on Mr. King’s property so they can scrape together enough money for the rent. There he meets Gayle, who loves nothing more than to sing from her nest high in the branches of a sycamore tree. But Little John isn’t the only one interested in Gayle and her song. When Mr. King hears the girl’s voice, he asks for Little John’s help to get the girl to sing for him. He’s willing to pay enough money to solve all of Little John’s family troubles, too. But when Gayle refuses to cooperate, Little John begins to wonder if there’s more than creepiness making her shy away from the old man. He finds himself caught between two impossible choices: his family’s survival, or his dearest friend.
Because this is a retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen story, I think I expected a more of a whimsical style in the writing. Once I acclimated to the way the story was written, I enjoyed it. The narrative has a very frank feel, middle-grade-boy-story feel to it. Which works, I think.
I liked that right away there’s tension between Little John’s past—the death of his sister, for which he blames himself and hates trees—and Gayle’s constant flitting around in the upper branches of the tree she loves like a friend. That tension definitely kept the story moving forward and kept me asking questions and reading on to see them answered. Does Little John’s mom really blame him for his sister’s death? Is Gayle’s nest really going to get her rescued from an unhappy foster home?
One element was difficult for me to grasp. Little John is supposed to have recently had a major growth spurt, so that now he’s extremely tall for his age. Between his height and the reserved, careful way he acted, I kept wanting him to be fourteen. It’s possible, I guess, that a twelve year-old could behave the way he does, but I couldn’t seem to stop expecting him to be older than he was, so it was always a little jarring to me to be reminded of his actual age.
I’m a huge fan of fairytales retold, and this one definitely didn’t leave me disappointed. I haven’t read the original version, so I’m not sure which parts would map to the original story, but this retelling didn’t turn out the way I expected. I liked that not everything was neatly resolved, but the story still felt complete.
You can order a copy of Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin on Amazon by clicking here.
A couple references to swearing, like ‘a cuss almost slipped out.’ No profanity in the telling of the story.
Gayle says that her parents have “flown away” and Little John takes this to mean that they have died.
Mr. King has this weird obsession with Gayle. It’s not entirely clear whether he poses physical danger to her, but he’s certainly a bit creepy. Gayle appears to suffer rough treatment in her foster home. Little John suspects that her foster mother and possibly her foster brother have hit her.
Little John’s father sometimes overindulges in alcohol, leaving his family without money for rent and basic needs.