Blackbird Blues is a novel of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. Voices of two women tell their stories: Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American aspiring jazz singer struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, and the 1940s diary entries of Sister Michaeline, Mary Kaye’s jazz mentor and guide through the bedlam of Mary Kaye’s childhood.
At Sister’s wake after a car crash, Mary Kaye meets Lucius Claremont, a sixty-year-old black bass player who had been Sister’s lover and father of their estranged son Benny before Sister left them for the convent. Lucius gives Mary Kaye Sister’s diary, saying it was Sister’s wish.
Mary Kaye had been reading James Baldwin and following the civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person she comes to really know. They bond over their loss, the diary, and visits to Benny in prison, where Sister started a ministry without telling him she was his mother.
Having killed a boxing opponent in his youth, Lucius disapproves of abortion, which at any rate is illegal in 1963. But he is supportive when Mary Kaye weighs her options, feeling that she is not yet equipped to raise a child.
With Mary Kaye’s involvement Lucius and Benny develop a genuine relationship. Benny confides that he had confronted Sister Michaeline with his hunch that she was his mother, so that when she drove off in a tizzy he blamed himself for her death. “I have to find a way to live with feeling that her death was my fault,” says Benny. Mary Kaye ponders, “What do we owe our children? What do we owe ourselves?”