That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row is Jarvis Jay Masters’ second book, and it comes with endorsements by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Van Jones, author David Sheff, and many others. Although Masters writes of the crimes he’s committed, as well as those he’s innocent of though convicted – and although he writes some about his life on San Quentin’s Death Row – That Bird focuses primarily on Masters’ childhood and coming of age.
Much of what Masters reports is heart breaking: being left to watch over young siblings with no food to feed them, beatings and cruelty of foster care families, being set up to fight for bets by older male relatives, choices he makes against his own best interest. But Masters also describes the love he shared with his sisters, his wonderful first foster parents, the neighbor who silently left food for the children each morning, his caring though drugged mother. When life gave him a chance, Masters was the little boy he was born to be: loving, sweet, curious, responsible.
The story Masters shapes for the first two-thirds of the book lets the reader in very close as the child tries to make sense of his experience, as he learns to protect himself from hurt, and eventually, as he comes to feel most comfortable in institutions. Masters’ telling is honest, well written, deeply (humanly) interesting.
The last third or so of the book is also interesting, honest, and well written, but to me feels tacked on – more like a handful of essays than the continuation of an unfolding story. Perhaps the publisher felt the book needed to include stories from prison itself.
Both Masters and his publisher (HarperOne) seem to want the book to speak out most strongly about the foster care system. An important goal that Masters achieves. But I think the book does even more than this. That Bird shows one life – its huge difficulties and its few gifts – and how a being is shaped by both. (written by Judith Tannenbaum)