Happy Birthday by Toni Cade Bambara, 1969
The magic trick:
Holding back information in order to let the story establish an amusing tone before shifting it into sadder, angrier territory
This week of Toni Cade Bambara stories has been a revelation to me. I knew she was good. Didn’t know she was this good. Wow. These stories are amazing.
So, “Happy Birthday” begins with a sense of humor. Ollie can’t find anything to do. Everywhere she turns in her neighborhood, people are too busy to hang out with her. Most don’t even want to talk to her.
It feels a little bit funny. Maybe not funny punchline funny. But at the very least, it’s amusing. Until it’s not.
The reader learns near the end of the story that the happy birthday of the title belongs to Ollie. It’s her birthday. This is how she’s spending it. Suddenly, the funny shades to the story dissolve into something much sadder. It’s her birthday! And no one has time to even talk to her? To make her feel good?
Very quickly, what began as an amusing tale grows into a downright indictment of a community. And that’s quite a trick on Bambara’s part.
“Wish me a happy birthday,” Ollie whispered to the pigeons. They hurried off toward the curb. “Better wish me a happy birthday,” she yelled, “or somebody around here is gonna get wasted.”
Miss Hazel leaned out the window again. “What’s with you, Ollie? You sick or something?”
“You should never have a birthday in the summertime,” Ollie yelled, “cause nobody’s around to wish you happy birthday or give you a party.”
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