Ollie, a neglected little girl, has no one to play with. Her Granddaddy Larkins will not wake up and Chalky the building superintendent is not around.
She visits the five big boys who hang around her street, and offers to buy them something from the store. They shoo her away. When she reaches the front of her neighborhood church, she cries out that she wishes to “fly off and kill myself” (64). The reverend and Miss Hazel, a neighborhood woman, try to quiet her down, but Ollie throws a temper tantrum. The reader then learns that today is her birthday, and she has no one to spend it with.
“Happy Birthday” is one of Bambara’s shortest stories, and perhaps due to its length, it has its own unique way of approaching characterization. In most of Bambara’s stories, the narrator mentions new characters offhand, without explaining much about them to the reader. We are left to infer their personalities and their relationship to the narrator from information that is gradually revealed over the course of the story.
In “Happy Birthday,” however, Bambara introduces each character with a brief profile that explains who they are and how Ollie knows them. She does this fairly consistently, even if the character only appears in the story for a short time. This gives “Happy Birthday” a relatively broad scope, particularly interesting considering its length. While it is primarily about a neglected child who is alone on her birthday, it also serves as a portrait of the neighborhood she lives in. Bambara further broadens the scope by choosing to write the story in the third person, a departure from her usual first-person narration.
Like “The Hammer Man,” this story portrays urban blight and family dysfunction as normal parts of daily life for Ollie and the people around her. For example, the older boys that Ollie visits seem to spend all of their time sitting on the porch rather than working. The fact that her closest relationship is with her grandfather suggests that Ollie's parents are either absent or troubled. Further, Grandaddy Larkins's inability to wake up on her birthday implies that he may have problems with drugs or his health. By having her narrator describe these issues uncritically, Bambara demonstrates the degree to which these problems have become entrenched in the lives of Ollie and children like her. And by setting the story on a child's birthday - typically one of a child's happiest days - she subtly but powerfully notes the way these issues of urban blight victimize children by ignoring them.