Book Review: Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber

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Title: Free as a Bird

Author: Gina McMurchy-Barber

Genre: Historical Fiction

Number of Pages: 176

Rating: B+

Recommended?: Yes



  Free as a Bird is a book more people should know about, because it’s both informative and profoundly moving. It’s about a woman named Ruby Jean Sharp who is born in the 1950’s with Down’s Syndrome, to a mother who sees her as nothing more than a burden and unfortunate mistake. Her grandma loves her and treats her more or less like any other child but when she dies Ruby’s mom and her mom’s boyfriend dump her in an institution.


Ruby Jean spends many years at the institution which is little more than a holding place for disabled people, and she is treated like an animal by the brutally violent and negligent aides. Finally she gets a chance to be ‘reintegrated’ into society, but will she be given a chance to prove herself functional enough to live in the real world?


This book delivers a heartbreaking storyline and a protagonist who is equal parts unique and unforgettable, but there’s also quite a bit of things you have to suspend a lot of disbelief on. It’s a daring choice to have the whole book narrated by a person with Down’s Syndrome, but in doing so it has Ruby Jean recounting events from years ago she couldn’t possibly remember word-for-word. We’re also to accept that she can perfectly recall conversations she couldn’t even understand at the time she heard them.


Otherwise I thought her character was believable but for me those improbable details kept taking me out of the story. The mental institution in the book is based on one in Canada that was eventually shut down and even though I knew these kinds of places have been prevalent throughout history it was still absolutely horrifying.


Somehow getting such a vividly graphic  portrait of the sheer humanity the patients suffered broke my heart even more than if I was just reading a set of facts. It was hard to put this book down  because I wanted so badly for Ruby Jean to be okay and get her happy ending.  She just felt very real to me  beyond just being another character with a developmental disability. This is a story that will stick with it’s readers for a long time.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber

  1. Hey Sarah, This is a little late…but I wanted to tell you I appreciate the honest and heartfelt review of my book, Free as a Bird. I’m glad Ruby Jean touched a nerve and your heart. All my best with your own writing. Take care, Gina.

    Liked by 1 person

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