The casual brutality in this novel, which is about a young boy who ends up left to fend for himself during the Second World War, is horrifying. The most horrifying thought of all is the idea that it was no doubt often even worse. The boy has dark hair and eyes. The villagers assume he is either a gypsy or a Jew and they fear not only the retribution of the Germans if he is found with them but also simply of him, of this different creature in their midst. The folklore has him painted as capable of giving the Evil Eye. The title comes from a rural practice of painting a bird brightly and then letting it free to fly with its flocks, who attack and kill the poor bird, who is perceived as an outsider, a threat. The young boy in the novel is that painted bird, attacked and nearly killed several times simply for not fitting in. When he finally is taken in by the Russian army and then an orphanage, the reader is left to watch the damage done by the cruel treatment he has endured. Even his reunion with his parents leaves him alone and haunted by his past.
“and only God, omnipotent indeed, knew they were mammals of a different breed.” Mayakovsky