Cemetery Bird

by Bridget Bufford

Review by Hope McPheeters, Director of ELLA’S HOPE FOR AUTISM

I read Cemetery Bird by Bridget Bufford and was asked to write a short review. When I received the book and author information, I was excited to get started. The author actually lives in my hometown and worked with children with developmental disabilities in my area. I knew that the book dealt with the topic of autism and I have two children on the spectrum so I thought I could relate.

Cemetery Bird is not just a book about autism though. This is a story of a young woman, Jenn or “Jay” as she is called by most, and her somewhat tortured childhood, abandoned by her addict mother and sent to her not-so-loving grandmother’s house to live away from her beloved father and bi-polar brother. The move to her grandmother’s was well intended, but for an 11 year old, this action left many scars on her heart. We are told her story through flashbacks between the 1980s in Missouri and Arizona and the present time. The present time is where we see Jay return to Missouri from a career as a firefighter in Arizona to help her now deceased brother’s wife Lena take care of their autistic son, Brandon. Jay begins to repair her relationship with her father, Sam and form a real friendship with Lena, a first for Jay. Brandon brings her closer to her brother, who killed himself several years beforehand. Through these relationships we see Jay go through a transformation of forgiveness and healing from the scars of her childhood.  

I really appreciated the way this story was written. The two different story lines in Jay’s life were both interesting and emotional- as an 11 year old, she was angry, hurt and sad all at the same time as I imagine a girl would be if abandoned by her family. She was feisty, and I particularly liked a part in the flashback when she ran away from her grandmother’s, thinking she could travel and find her mom all by herself. Eventually, when Jay did break free and join a “Hotshot” firefighter group in Arizona, she did find love in Rodriguez and we see a loving side of the young woman. This relationship unfortunately ends abruptly when Jay returns home to help with Brandon and was somewhat confusing to me as a reader. It felt a little unanswered.

I think that Bufford did a good job of portraying Brandon’s disorder of autism, though as a parent, felt that the emotions surrounding a diagnosis were a bit flat. Lena, Brandon’s mom, did not talk a lot about any emotion she was feeling surrounding her husband’s death or having an autistic son. But, this could be a realistic portrayal of some parents, just not one I can relate. The character named “Boots,” another boy with special needs and his mother Karen, also with some sort of special need, became an integral part of the story, but the back story of the two was a bit muddled. I was never 100% clear on how Boots got his disability and exactly what Karen was afflicted with. In saying that, there were parts, again as a parent, that I was moved to tears on Buford’s description of Boots, his seizures, and afflictions. His fate was devastating and surprising as well, and left me somewhat haunted in its effect on the other characters.

Again, when I agreed to read the book, I expected more to relate to the autism aspect. I do wish that it had a bit more of the complex disorder, but I found myself really caring about this very dysfunctional family. I enjoyed the relationship between Jay and Brandon, as I have a twin sister that has helped with my children on many occasions and I could see how special that sort of relationship is as well. The relationship between Brandon and Sam, his paternal grandfather was also very sweet and reminded me on how important the family is to a child with autism. Overall, Cemetery Bird, though not a story of autism itself, touched me and reminded me that our struggles would be much worse if we did not have family and a sense of home.