Sparrows, Mao’s “Little Red Book”, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge

If you’re a real follower of this blog then you’ve undoubtedly read my Biomythography. Chapter V is titled “Sparrow” and you can imagine my surprise when this same bird was mentioned in my little, red copy of Mao’s Quotations. 

I was reading on a pink kayak in the middle of a lake (I paddled out with the book in my pocket… that’s a joke for those who really know Mao). Before I knew it my little red book on a little pink kayak on a little velvety pond felt larger than a text that fit so snuggly in my own iconically small hands. I am not going to write about the biological or even cultural effects of Mao’s stigmatization of sparrows, that is sort of beyond the point and even niche(r) than what I hope to examine on this blog. But this little bird, this little sparrow which I wrote about in my Biomythography; about the place I found myself floating on, all of a sudden took me from the inner thoughts of Chairman Mao to my own written story on privilege. Specifically, the privilege I had been forced to reckon with at our white house on the top of the hill in the deep woods of the state of New Hampshire. I had always made jokes about Mao’s legacy as an anti-landlord, anti-leech figure. I think back to when the water beneath me had leeches, stories of how my relatives would have to pull them off their own pale skin. I think of the works of people like Jamaica Kincaid and now I wonder if the leeches in the lake have left because they’ve been replaced by the humans around it?

I sit in my kayak floating on the water that makes my hair curly and my legs tired, I read about Paper Tigers and about War strategies. No one else is on the lake and for a moment surrounded by green hills of trees and a blue sky with white cotton candy, I feel like perhaps I am the only person in the world presently. I close my eyes and take a break from the quotations in the book only to be confronted by questions in my own head. I hear something above me and open my eyes briskly hoping a bat awakening from a long sleep hasn’t emerged yet. That’s when I see the sparrow and I realize my connection. My favorite quote in Mao’s Quotations was one of his many metaphors that make his book so appealing and accessible to the general people. In “10. Leadership of Party Committees” Mao’s writes:

“Learn to ‘play the piano’. In playing the piano, all ten fingers are in motion; it will not do to move some fingers only and not others. However, if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in coordination. A Party committee should keep a firm grasp on its central task and at the same time, around the central task, it should unfold the work in other fields. At present, we have to take care of many fields; we must look after the work in all the areas, armed units and departments, and not give all our attention to a few problems, to the exclusion of others. Wherever there is a problem, we must put our finger on it, and this is a method we must master. Some play the piano well and some badly, and there is a great difference in the melodies they produce. Members of Party committees must learn to ‘play the piano’ well.”

I don’t know how to play the piano.

I don’t know how to play the piano but I am reading a book in the middle of a lake floating on a historically unstable kayak with a squawking yet comforting sparrow close above my head. I hold a long paddle in my hands and I wiggle my fingers. Yeah, maybe I would be good at the piano I think.

A week later my brain has recovered from Mao’s wise words and I think I am able to read fiction again. Some exciting news I guess, news which I plan on expanding upon further some other time… but I will be going up to Maine for an internship and living with a 75-year-old lady! Inspired by this, my mother demanded I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. One of the saddest books I think I have ever read, coming from someone who loves a good character death at the end, I think how depressed my mom must have been to recommend me this text. She says it’s popular and a real crowd pleaser; that makes me only more pessimistic about our general population’s happiness I guess. All of a sudden I think of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite characters, THE iconic Holden Caufield, and I think I realize my trepidation towards Strout’s work. 

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” 

Now the question is do I wish I could play a serenade on the piano and bring Mao back to life or would I prefer to ask Elizabeth Strout why she made her book so damn depressing?

I wonder why I am reading a book about old white people who live in Maine and all seem to be unhappy in their long marriages. Yet I struggle to put it down and before I know it I’ve finished. Maybe it is more normal to like a book like this one and a little more quirky to chose Mao to read on your summer vacation.

While there are no sparrows that fly in Olive Kitteridge, (none that I at least noticed), the plot of this novel does fly around between different characters that revolve around our central protagonist, Olive, in a flight pattern similar to that which flies over my head. The sparrow that flies around the lake and above the pink kayak, the sparrow from my Biomythography whose wing was injured, in that same image of a sparrow, I see the image of Strout’s web of stories. I see frantic flying back and forth and I see death like that in Mao’s ideal Chinese society with no grain-eating flyers. I see a sparrow fly from the rolling hills of New Hampshire to Maine where the story takes place and that is when I realize how these two books are connected. 


Sparrows, Mao’s “Little Red Book” and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge are all sort of sad and melancholic. The original sparrow of my writing was recorded for its broken wing, Mao’s fight was unfortunately not completely long-lasting, and in Strout’s book, I’ve been confronted with an overwhelming feeling of depression. But then I think back to that new sparrow that flew over my head in the pink kayak, and I realize that there is more than one sparrow in this world. I realize birds are prevalent and Mao is still being read and Olive Kitteridge is a book so good that someone practically forced me to read it. I remember this feisty, tenacious, little, and loud sparrow flying above my head on the pink kayak and instead of pure melancholy, I do sense one other feeling. Even if it is fleeting like the bird above, even if more methodologically than practically, the feeling of optimism is fresh in the air around me.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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