Divided into fifteen chapters, Bird at My Window has a plot that readers unwrap like the leafy layers of an artichoke, revealing, at last, the heart and soul of the main character, Wade Williams. As the novel begins, Wade wakes up in a straitjacket in the prison ward of a New York City hospital. The straitjacket is, in some ways, a metaphor for his predicament in life; it foreshadows the evolving restrictions of both heredity and environment that Wade confronts as the novel unfolds.
At first completely disoriented, Wade soon learns that he has nearly killed his beloved sister Faith. She, however, refuses to press charges, blaming herself for intervening in a scuffle between Wade and their brother, Willie Earl; she also declines to tell Wade the cause of the fight.
Accordingly, Wade’s first thought upon release is to find Willie Earl and to force him to set the record straight for their mother, who has rejected Wade as “just mean clear through.” For Wade, Mumma’s one-room kitchenette is the still point in a too rapidly spinning world, and he savors the time he spends there each day before returning to his own apartment. Wade desperately wants to win back Mumma and regain his place in the family circle.
The principal plot line involves Wade’s quest for answers from Willie Earl and acceptance from Mumma. At times, however, the forward momentum of the main narrative is interrupted by Wade’s memories, dreams, and even hallucinations involving the past. Three such flashbacks are of pivotal importance.
The first concerns Wade’s schooling. Born into a family that undervalues formal education, Wade has no one to appreciate his potential until the arrival of the neighborhood activist Professor Jones, who examines Wade’s school records and discovers that the boy is a genius. During this same period, Wade also begins his friendship with Rocky, a bright, sensitive, and articulate boy his own age.
Almost singlehandedly, Professor Jones mounts a campaign to enroll five gifted African American boys in an all-white Bronx high school. The effort fails because of white mob pressure, and eleven-year-old Wade is jailed for assaulting a belligerent white woman in the crowd of protesters.
When his parents decide to send him to Boston to live with cousins and attend school in that city, Rocky invites Wade to accompany him. The Williams family is asked to provide only train fare. Mumma refuses to listen to this request, blaming Wade’s jail sentence on all this...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)