On the first page of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings, the reader is faced with a woman in flight. She is driving down the freeway, indecision pulling at her at every exit sign she passes yet unable to turn away from the road ahead. Then we are confronted with the line: ‘She’d left her children.’
The impact of a mother leaving her children is instant. A mother’s connection to her child is often perceived as something so unbreakable and profound that cannot be explained to outsiders, and the idea that this woman has abandoned her babies strikes as inconceivable. What could possibly have torn her from them in such an indecisive panic?
Letty is in flight mode when her mother, who has held her life together since Letty’s teenage pregnancy disrupted her life’s course, moves back to Mexico. Suddenly Letty is left to not only fend for herself, but to become the mother she’s avoided being for 14 years.
“Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their paths all at once”.
Thrust into an adult world of expectation, Letty must navigate her way through becoming a responsible mother, with a little girl who misses her grandparents and a wary teenage son who is curious about his unknown father and the feelings he’s developing for a fragile girl at school.
The narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of Letty and her teenage son Alex and what is most striking is how reversed their roles are. Letty is chaotic and indecisive, self-medicating her anxiety with alcohol, whilst Alex is studious and compassionate and is seemingly immune to the anger that most would feel in his situation. He also wants to be a hero which turns out to be his downfall.
After the shock of their grandparents’ departure, Alex’s world takes knock after knock. His mother illegally signs him up to Mission Hills, the elite school on the other side of town; he tracks down his father who didn’t know he existed; and he tries to rescue the immigrant girl he loves.
A fascination with birds and the feathered mosaics that Letty’s father is famed for set the analogy for the entire novel. Alex has inherited his grandfather’s passion and it is his study of the uniqueness of each feather than helps him form a relationship with his father.
Threaded with themes of immigration, inheritance and finding your direction, this is a beautiful story of a family finding their wings.