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Book Review: A Robin Redbreast in a Cage by R.P. Burnham

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This latest literary novel by R.P. Burnham explores the darkness and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion.

The story begins in Maine, when our young brilliant protagonist, Charlie, is but a girl of thirteen. She lives a turbulent life with her alcoholic mother, who seems to bring a new boyfriend to their rundown apartment every month. Her mother, blinded by alcohol, isn’t able to express the love she feels for Charlie. She isn’t able to adequately provide for her daughter either. In spite of it all, Charlie would rather stay with her mother than having to live with relatives or worse, foster parents, a real scenario if child services find out what’s really going on in their home.

However, the day arrives when both mother and daughter aren’t able to hold up appearances anymore. When Charlie is attacked by one of her mother’s boyfriends, a neighbor calls the authorities and the girl’s life radically changes. She goes to live with her uncle — her mother’s brother — to a beautiful house on the other side of town. Her uncle, an egotistical, self-righteous minister, runs his household like a tight ship. He always has the last word; no one is allowed to express their real opinions; for him, women are mere instruments of reproduction and belong in the kitchen. Charlie, a smart girl, adjusts accordingly in order to please her uncle and avoid problems and in doing so becomes an excellent student of the church’s teachings. Her uncle soon sees Charlie’s potential and uses her as a weapon for his own purposes. If he can get Charlie to intelligently debate the absolute truth of the church, more followers will join his congregation.

Later, in high school, Charlie is faced with prejudice because of her beliefs and those of her uncle. She meets a boy there, Jeremy, who seems to be the only one who understands her. They become friends, but, because of Charlie’s uncle, they don’t have the opportunity to see each other as normal friends would. A big part of the novel revolves around Jeremy, as some of the chapters are written solely from his perspective. In these chapters, Jeremy discusses religion as well as several political issues, such as the war in Iraq and the extreme views of the conservative party.

Eventually, Charlie goes on to college, where she serendipitously reunites with Jeremy. Around this time, Charlie’s mother stops drinking and wants to reach out to her daughter once again. Will Charlie forgive her mother? Will they ever live together again? Most importantly, will she stand up to her uncle and leave his house and the church? Fate often has a way of helping out, and in this case a terrible event is the catalyst Charlie needs to find the courage to be her own person.

As he does with his earlier novels, Burnham takes his time in skillfully creating his characters so that by the end, the readers know them inside out, down to their raw hearts. Some characters suffer a transformation; others don’t; but each word and action count and stay true to them, making them distinctive. Most fascinating about this story is the mind-splitting moral debate that goes on inside Charlie’s mind at every second as she tries to fight her uncle from totally controlling and brainwashing her like he’s already done to his family. Burnham’s style is heavy on narration, and he likes to explore concepts and ideas, so, at times, the pace drags a little, even when the ideas are part of the dialogue. Charlie’s story, however, pulls the reader in, and this reviewer was anxious to see what was going to happen to her — and whether or not she’d end up having a happy ending like she deserved. Jeremy’s character, while also sympathetic, is somehow less interesting than Charlie, who is obviously the star of the show.

The hypocrisy and evil of religion and conservative governments is a recurrent theme in Burnham’s novels, such as On a Darkling Plain and The Many Change and Pass. Other questions explored in the novel include what it means to be a good Christian and the role of women in Christianity. If you’re interested in fiction dealing with social issues, this is an author whose works you’ll definitely want to read.

Find out more about this book from The Wessex Collective.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.