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When Ecláir the sparrow is forcefully shoved into a life in a cage, it is like a storm has come and swept away everything he has ever known. After years of living free in the wild, Ecláir is now entrapped inside an constricting and inescapable prison. But when his captor, a woman coined as “the handkerchief woman,” starts bribing Ecláir with muffins and bombarding him with stories from her daily life, he starts to grudgingly make a hesitant friendship with her. 

Such begins The Pipe Tree, the moving debut novel by Lily Jensen. It portrays the protagonist coming to terms with an uncertain future and friendship, with the easy choice between freedom and life behind bars suddenly becoming almost impossible as the relationship between the two becomes more and more complex.

In short chapters set at Ecláir’s present-day Portland, Maine, he narrates the story of how the friendship between him and the handkerchief woman came to be, and what further steps he should take to gain trust- and potentially a route to freedom. Some of the novel, however, addresses the question of freedom itself, and testing whether their friendship is strong enough to hold themselves together. 

As a wild, pastry-loving sparrow, Ecláir easily falls to the temptation of a sweet treat, especially ecláirs and blueberry muffins. When he arrives at the apartment, he easily feels out of place, trapped in a mysterious world. Looking for potential ways to escape, he starts closely observing the woman’s routine, and the house around him. When, on the first few days after capture, he immediately notices the lack of extravagance in the apartment, especially when it comes to the dinners, in which the woman eats cereal.

But Ecláir is particularly moved by the way the woman seemed to be missing something, just like he himself, something expressed in the way she talks and sings. Ecláir sees the sadness in her actions.

Over the course of the next year or so, Ecláir and the woman find themselves intertwined in a friendship and history with connections far deeper than what meets the eye. Both sacrifice what is quite dear to them for the other in this heartbreaking friendship that was not meant to be. Ecláir sings for the woman every day, staying obedient otherwise, while the woman spends her tight supply of money for pastries and food for Ecláir. But escape is imminent as time ticks before a new cage is built, one with no physical bars anymore- but instead mental ones.

As Lily King, the author of Euphoria and The English Teacher stated perfectly: “The Pipe Tree is a powerful act of imagination. Through the eyes of a bird, Lily Jessen explores the truths and contradictions of human nature in a tale full of humor, delight, and deep understanding.” While the Pipe Tree lies from the viewpoint of a carefree sparrow, Lily Jensen has tapped into a universal connection facing the importance of freedom and friendship with consequences and if well-meant acts of love can actually hurt the other, as well as yourself. 

The Pipe Tree by Lily Jessen. Children's Art Foundation - Stone Soup Inc., 2024. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!

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