If These Wings Could Fly

Cover for the book "If These Wings Could Fly."

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Book Review

Seventeen-year-old Leighton Barnes’ dad is becoming increasingly violent and abusive. But no one wants to admit it. In fact, even their house magically repairs the cracks in the walls and the broken glass as if to keep his violent anger hidden. But Leighton must do something before someone ends up being broken in ways the house can’t fix.

Plot Summary

Tens of thousands of crows are gathering in Auburn, Pennsylvania. It’s strange, unexplainable and almost magical. And it has the townsfolk worried.

To 17-year-old Leighton Barnes, however, that’s one of the least bothersome things going on in her world lately. In fact, she finds the swarming crows almost comforting in some odd way. There’s one gray crow that comes tapping at her bedroom window, whom she’s nicknamed Joe, that seems incredibly smart and friendly. It even leaves little gifts of marbles and rusty keys for Leighton’s little sister when she gives him crackers and peanuts.

The things that frighten Leighton, however, are much closer to home. There’s a fearsome, dangerous, angry thing that walks around in her father’s shoes, for instance. With every new bill or missed payment or lost job opportunity, her dad’s anger bursts forth in raging, destructive ways. He hasn’t broken any bones in the house yet. But he’s erupted and flared, screamed and bruised, broken plaster and glass. This explosive temper has driven Leighton’s two young sisters, Campbell and Juniper, into her arms for safety more times than Leighton can count. It’s gotten to the point where that explosion is expected. And it always comes.

And then there’s the gun Dad keeps on top of the refrigerator. When the house starts to rage, Leighton’s thoughts always go to the gun and, of course, her mom. Leighton’s longsuffering mother is the only fragile, fleshy obstacle between that gun and the really fragile things huddling together in the bedroom upstairs.

Worse than even that, in a way, is the fact that no one wants to see the terrible situation that the female Barnes family members must endure. Even their house conspires against them—magically repairing the cracked plaster walls, the smashed windows, splintered door jambs and fractured cabinets before anyone might see them and hold them up as proof.

Leighton is in her last year of high school. And she’s working toward the day when she can fly off away from her father’s rages. On the other hand, she also worries about leaving this family nest, no matter how terrible it might be. Because when she flies free, her sisters will stay behind with no wings to fly for cover.

Leighton has to find some answer that currently eludes her: She must come up with some way to protect the ones she loves most. Her thoughts and fears swirl like a sky full of crows. They crowd her mind like the black flocks of Auburn crowd the trees.

There has to be a way. And Leighton has to find it.

Christian Beliefs

None.

Other Belief Systems

Author Kyrie McCauley uses some lightly supernatural and generally unexplained occurrences as a means of illustrating, and in a way lightening, the anger and intensity at the core of her realistic story of abuse.

The growing swarms of crows, for instance, bring small instances of aid and encouragement to the Barnes girls. They even swoop down in a massive flock to save Leighton, her sisters, and their mom from a burning building. The birds seem to represent the possibility that change can happen and that positive things can transpire even amid something seemingly impossible.

The magically self-repairing house, on the other hand is a dark spirituality of a different stripe. It becomes a representation of Leighton’s father’s growing anger and the unresolved pain of his father before him. All of those negative energies are built into the fabric of the building. The house hides and repairs the damage that those raging energies produce; eventually, all that rage even takes on a dark physical form. 

Authority Roles

Leighton recognizes that in some part of his being, her father loves them. But it’s also clear that the man is badly damaged, in part because of the abuse he endured at the hands of his father. The whole family has become trained to walk on eggshells around Leighton’s dad. He’s a man who can be tipped by the smallest perceived slight or reminders of his present or past failures.

As such, the pressures of bills and his business failing have nudged him further and further away from the fun-loving father he used to be and into some very dark and destructive directions indeed. He is foul and abusive in many ways.

Leighton’s mom, on the other hand is a good woman who tries to see the man her husband used to be. She tries to offer support and love. And she does everything she can to protect her girls while still hoping to keep the family intact. Eventually though, she realizes that love and hope are not always enough to heal every situation.

Unfortunately, most of the other adults and authority figures in Auburn don’t see the abusive things going on behind closed doors. That’s partly because the family (and the house) keep those things covered up. And partly because some people refuse to see it. A neighbor lady, for instance, makes it clear that she believes that it’s the family’s job to absorb this raging man’s anger. They need to change their behavior rather than demand any change from him.

Leighton begins to develop a relationship with a guy from school named Liam. He’s well adjusted and caring (unlike some of the other teens at school), and most of that appears to be thanks to his parents. Liam’s parents are one of the only couples in town who appear to have a loving, well-balanced relationship with each other and their family members. Leighton even makes note of the fact that they casually hold hands while driving in the car.

Profanity & Violence

Foul language is pretty constant in this story. Much of it is spewed by Leighton’s father. He uses his words to attack and punish the women in his family repeatedly—particularly with his many, many exclamations of the f-word and several c-words. We also hear uses of the s-word, “h—,” “b–ch” “a–hole” and repeated misuses of God’s and Jesus’ names.    

Dad’s screaming attacks and his violent smashing of plates, glasses, wall hangings, furniture and windows are intense and disturbing. And that’s particularly true since we generally see everything from Leighton’s perspective while she does everything she can to calm and comfort her 12- and 9-year-old sisters. In many cases, the potential violence is reigned in before anything really terrible can happen. But there are also repeated instances where Leighton’s mom is heard crying or moaning from another room. And in some cases, Leighton is in the same room watching her father manhandle Mom roughly.

In a couple instances, Leighton’s father turns his rage toward her, slamming her physically into a stair railing, countertop or up against a wall. Once, he spits in her face while slamming her backward. In another instance he fires his gun in a moment of fury and the bullet nicks Leighton’s rig cage, drawing blood. Leighton catches sight of scars left on her father’s arms—some of which were obviously caused by a burning cigarette. The Barnes’ home accidentally catches fire, and the women of the family have to climb out an upstairs window onto the roof to find escape. Two of the girls then rush back into the burning building to drag their unconscious father to safety.

Leighton has some run-ins with a boy at school who calls her names because she rejected his romantic advances. At one point he angrily grabs at her; she hits him in the face with a basketball, giving him a bloody nose.

Teens drink and some get drunk at a high school party.

Sexual Content

Leighton is very hesitant to have any kind of relationship with a boy at school. But Liam slowly wins her over with his charming nice-guy qualities. The two draw closer and eventually kiss and begin making out. When he slips his hand under her shirt, though, she balks a bit and he backs off. Their attraction continues to escalate, however, and we see them making out and laying or sitting on top of one another. And though they don’t have sex, their interactions become more heated and Leighton reveals to him that she started taking the pill in case she decided to have sex with him when the time came—making it clear that at 17 her sexuality is no one’s business but her own.

A guy crudely teases Leighton in front of other boys, declaring that she “wants the D.” In the course of narration Leighton makes it clear that she believes most men—especially white men—have the tendency to be narrow-minded, violent and oblivious to the struggles and plight of women in American society.

Discussion Topics

Get discussion questions for other books at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

This novel won the William C. Morris Award, handed out by the Young Adult Library Services Association for author Kyrie McCauley’s deft and compelling handling of a story of domestic abuse. As such, If These Wings Could Fly will likely gain attention from local schools.

But any parents considering this book should note that the language here can be very intense and foul. In fact, McCauley uses that language as part of her father character’s emotional abuse. And though the physical side of his abuse never gets intensely graphic, it certainly could be very disturbing for some younger readers.

On top of that, parents should be aware that McCauley uses her novel to promote progressive ideas about teen sexuality and birth control, along with negative stereotypes about white men in American society.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose

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