You must meet 'Little John'. He is not so little as he once was; that allows him to work with his father in his tree removal business. Together, they are working to clear brush for Mr. King. Mr. King is also known as The Emperor, named for the chain of dollar stores that he owns. His wealth allows him to control much of what happens in their small Texas town.
You don't want to meet John because of his work ethic. You want to know his voice, his wonder at meeting Gayle, and his enduring loyalty and dignity. John's life is not good. His little sister has recently died after falling from a tree. John is sure he could have saved her. His mother faces deep depression, and has a tough time remembering that Raelynn is dead. His father spends most of the family's money on booze, and cannot afford to pay the rent. John avoids his best friend so that he doesn't have to tell him what his family life has become:
"Ernest had been my best friend since we were three. But he hadn't come over in months. Not after I told him I wasn't interested in playing video games. It wasn't true. The truth was worse, though. Dad had pawned my game system four months before to cover the light bill. I figured it was better for Ernest to think I was acting mean than to know the truth about how broke we were."
When he meets Gayle, a young and mistreated foster child with a powerfully beautiful singing voice, he is entranced. She is living in the branches of a sycamore tree. She tells him that she is waiting for her parents to come back for her. Her magical presence brings comfort and joy to John's life. Their friendship blossoms. It turns out that Mr. King is also captivated by the beauty of Gayle's voice, and Mr. King is accustomed to getting what he wants. What he wants is to record Gayle's voice ... or so he tells Little John.
When Mr. King offers a deal that will make his home life much better, Little John is torn between loyalty to family and to his new friend. Making the choice is difficult and results in terror for Gayle and an aching in his heart for his actions that Little John knows must be made right. Guilt and a sense of responsibility are as much a part of his life as is the need for love and acceptance:
"It's just like Momma said. I got my nest, and my tree, already." She lifted her head. She wasn't crying. She was smiling, beaming. "It's all I needed. I can do it now. I can fix you, Tree."
Nikki Loftin has written a remarkable story focused on love and loss, betrayal and healing. Loosely basing it on The Nightingale, she combines a bit of magic with harsh reality to ensure that Little John and Gayle will live long in our hearts. It is a story that begs to be read aloud.