“Above Us Only Sky” doesn’t appear to be a meditation on religion or world peace, the first thought that springs to mind based on the title, likely drawn from John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Outer Banks author Michele Young-Stone must be a Beatles fan, with a major character named Prudence. However, her story ambles from the 1970s forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall, back to World War II, and forward to the 1990s and 2000s. Heritage binds the characters together. They defy any effort at pop-culture pigeonholing.
Prudence Eleanor Vilkas is born in 1973 with wings. Instead of flitting through life as an extended metaphor, she loses her wings shortly after birth, after doctors label them “some kind of birth defect.” Her parents’ stormy marriage ends before long. She and her mother drift throughout the southeastern U.S.
Prudence’s father is largely absent. Sixteen years later, his own father, a Lithuanian immigrant in Brooklyn referred to only as the Old Man, wakes up one morning and says he needs to finally meet his granddaughter. “She is the same age my sister Daina was the last time I see her,” he tells his German wife, Ingeburg.
With this exchange, the cast of characters is nearly complete and the real time travel begins. Before he was the Old Man, he was a young man named Frederick with three sisters, all presumed dead after the Russians took over their town. Daina, the youngest of the sisters, has wings.
She is able to flee – the significance of which is unavoidable – in the company of Stasys, a young man who is infatuated with her. The two find refuge in Nazi-occupied Palanga and pursue a quiet, stoic life posing as husband and wife. When power returns to the new Soviet forces, they mouth allegiance to Stalin.
The charade continues for nine years, until a colleague of Stasys reports Daina, and she is detained on suspicion of treason. In a jail cell she is ordered to strip, and her wings are discovered.
So long a secret, they are her salvation: The detaining officers regard her as an angel and release her – after she has agreed to strip and be photographed. A local art photographer is enlisted to capture this apparent natural wonder. Modest by nature, she covers her chest.
However, as she prays to Saint Casimir for mercy, her wings unfold. The images that result are unforgettable; photographer Lucas is forever changed.
Because of these photos, the wide gap between Daina and Prudence narrows. After bonding with Prudence many years later, the Old Man takes the family back to Lithuania for the first time since the war. There, he discovers the photographer’s shop and learns that Daina is alive and resides nearby.
The so-called reunion mirrors much of the discord between the men and women of the Vilkas family. The Old Man is still a dreamer; Daina has lived with the fallout of the war for decades and is bitter. Only after reflection does she shed her defenses and invite the American Vilkas clan into her kitchen. For the first time since her fateful session with the photographer, we see her wings expand as her emotions swell. And Prudence finally finds peace in her winged identity.
It’s worth noting that the notions of wings and flight don’t fit neatly into the interpretive mold established in 20th century literature and music. Young-Stone’s winged women may represent freedom on some level, but their wings also denote the burden of cultural identity.
They are equal part blessing and curse, the mark of a being who is bound by obligation but lifted up in the unexpected love and acceptance wrought by time and understanding.
Above Us Only Sky
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages