Excerpt from Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Blackbird House

by Alice Hoffman

Blackbird House
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2004, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2005, 256 pages

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"I'll just take him with me and Vincent this one time," John said. "I promise. Then we'll concentrate on turnips."

"No," Coral said. She wanted three milk cows and four sheep and her children safe in their own beds. She thought about her youngest, mashing worms into paste for his fledgling. "Isaac can't go."

By then the brothers had reached the shores of the little pond. The frogs jumped away as they approached. The blackbird, frightened by the splashing, hopped into the safety of Isaac's shirt, and sent out a small muffled cry.

"He's like a hen," the older brother jeered. At fifteen, Vincent had grown to his full height, six foot, taller than his father; he was full of himself and how much he knew. He'd been to sea twice, after all, and he figured he was as good as any man; he already had calluses on his hands. He didn't need to go to school anymore, which was just as well, since he'd never been fond of his lessons. "He doesn't even know he can fly," he said of his brother's foundling.

"I'll teach him." Isaac felt in his shirt for the blackbird. The feathers reminded him of water, soft and cool. Sometimes Isaac let the chick sleep right beside him, on the quilt his mother had sewn out of indigo homespun.

"Nah, you won't. He's a big baby. Just like you are. He'll be walking around on your shoulder for the rest of his life."

After that, Isaac brought the blackbird into the woods every day, just to prove Vincent wrong. He climbed into one of the tall oaks and let his legs dangle over a high limb. He urged the blackbird to fly away, but the bird was now his pet, too attached to ever leave; the poor thing merely paced on his shoulder and squawked. Isaac decided to name his pet Ink. Ink was an indoor bird, afraid of the wind, and of others of his own kind. He hopped around the parlor, and nested beneath the woodstove, where it was so hot he singed his feathers. He sat on the table and sipped water from a saucer while Isaac did his studies. It was a navigation book Isaac was studying. The Practical Navigator. If he was not as strong as Vincent, or as experienced, then at least he could memorize the chart of the stars; he could know the latitude of where they were going and where they'd been.

"Do you think I could teach him to talk?" Isaac said dreamily to his mother one day. Ink was perched on the tabletop, making a nuisance of himself.

"What would a blackbird have to say?" Coral laughed.

"He'd say: I'll never leave you. I'll be with you for all time."

Hearing those words, Coral felt faint; she said she needed some air. She went into the yard and faced the meadow and gazed at the way the tall grass moved in the wind. That night she said to her husband again, "Don't take him with you, John."

April was ending, with sheets of rain and the sound of the peepers calling from the shore of the pond. Classes would end in a few days, too--they called it a fisherman's school, so that boys were free to be sent out to work with their fathers or uncles or neighbors from May till October. The Hadleys left in the first week of that mild month, a night when there was no moon. The fog had come in; so much the better when it came to sneaking away. The British had lookouts to the east and the west, and it was best to take a northerly route. They brought along molasses, the fishing nets, johnnycake, and salted pork, and, unknown to John and Vincent, Isaac took along his blackbird as well, tucked into his jacket. As they rounded the turn out of their own harbor, Isaac took his pet from his hiding place.

"You could do it now if you wanted to," he said to the bird. "You could fly away."

But the blackbird shivered in the wind, startled, it seemed, by the sound of water. He scrambled back to the safety of Isaac's jacket, feathers puffed up, the way they always were when he was frightened.

Excerpted from Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman Copyright© 2004 by Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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