Canada Reads is coming soon, and Birdie was one of the five books chosen by the panellists, the other four being The Illegal by Lawrence Hill (my review), Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz, Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, and The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami. (And, if you’re interested, here’s the longlist.)
Having only read two of the five books so far, I feel confident enough about Birdie to say that I think it will be a strong contender. The themes in this book are not new themes, but the way Lindberg explores them in her novel felt fresh and meaningful; reconciling with the past, searching for identity and a place to call home.
Bernice/Birdie has had a hard life. She grew up with a distant/alcoholic/depressed mother and a handful of other women; ‘aunties’ and ‘cousins’. Her ‘uncles’ liked to get a little too familiar with her when they had the chance. When she left home, she went form her Aunt’s apartment to a foster home, to the streets of Edmonton, back home, and then to ‘the san’. When she got out of the san, she headed to Gibsons, BC, the site of the long-running Canadian TV series The Beachcombers, in search of Pat John, the indigenous actor who played Jesse. (That theme song sure brings back memories. We Canadians love our dramas about the logging industry.)
Instead she finds a job and a place to live at Lola’s cafe. This is where Bernice has decided she’s had enough of her past and her demons. She goes to bed and doesn’t get up again for weeks. She goes into a dream-state in search of an answer to who she really is, buried deep down under all the abuse and hurt and secrets. Auntie Val and Skinny Freda are summoned by Lola, and the 3 women take turns by her side.
The dream-state that Lindberg creates could have been a hokey mess, but she pulls it off, making it not only believable, but also beautiful and necessary.
Birdie’s dream state:
When it was time, and when the fury of her past began to race ahead of her future, she simply lay down.
Where she went depended upon something that she could not control. All she knew was that she usually ended up someplace where the past lives with the present, and they mingled like smoke. Once it cleared she was almost sure she would see her future.
She does not have the cognizance of her body and surroundings as she did in life. She has, instead, the distinct impression of a being disconnected from the living but even more intricately connected to life.
She realized she would have to save herself.
Her experience with abuse:
The silence about what was happening around them seeped into the kitchen, first. Permeating the curtains. Eating into the linoleum. Eventually settling in the fridge. It was like some sort of bad medicine – it made Freda skinny, Bernice fat, and Maggie disappear.
The pure red rage of her seeming complicity – her failure to scream, to speak of this, to fight it, to cry – washed over her.
Her search for home:
The perfect book, to Bernice, would depict a clean house with flowers in every available container. There would be no cigarette burns in gaudy-coloured carpet, no empty bottles or glasses half-drunk or spilled on the floor on weekends, and no visits without invitations from her parents’ friends. No one would bother her in her room under the stairs, and she wouldn’t be woken up by thundering feet up the steps (a fight) or the thudding down the stairs (someone falling down). There would be happy shiny people who always hugged and smiled. they would never put each other down or make fun of one another to make other people laugh.
Her ache for home, home being something she does not yet understand, and a place she has never been, brushes over her like a skirt hem on the floor.
She is so hungry. Not for food, not for drink, not for foreign skin. This appetite that sits next to her now is relatively unknown and persistent. She is hungry for family. For the women she loves. For the sounds of her language. For the peace of no introduction, no backstory, no explanation.
Birdie’s mother, Maggie, plays a big role in her life, both when she is present and when she is absent. In the end, it is her absence that sends Birdie over the edge. Where has Maggie gone, and what is her story? Another book is needed here, I think.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Bernice is a Cree woman, as is the author Tracey Lindberg. This adds a whole other level of depth to the story, of course, but the reason I didn’t focus on it at first is because I think the journey she takes in this book is one that can be universal. However, Birdie’s personal story is also influenced by her background and her family’s history, and, as such, contributes an important voice to the discussion around aboriginal issues in Canada. For more in-depth and already written pieces about this, see the reviews of Birdie in The Globe and Mail and The National Post.
Lindberg’s use of language is a highlight of this novel. I found the writing both poetic and playful, with a whole host of made-up compound words that go far in aiding her description of the range of relationships and complex emotions happening in the novel; sistercousin, fearanger, griefanger, sleepingwake, thinksnipes. Also included in the book are snippets of dreams and stories relevant to what’s happening with Bernice while on her ‘journey’.
One more thing: The tree of life plays both a symbolic and a cultural role in this book, and because I have a ‘thing’ for trees and nature, I had to mention it.
“In actuality, the tree itself represents that there is wellness, beauty, and potential for regeneration through nature… Metaphorically, it is a reminder that life is outside ourselves, that regardless of what is going on in our minds, our spirits and bodies have an obligation to our natural environment to behave in reciprocal, healing and positive ways.”
For what Tracey Lindberg has to say about Birdie and telling indigenous stories, see her interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.
I want people to understand that individuals do make choices, but sometimes those choices are quite limited by the circumstances in which you have been placed. Or you have been defined by, or marginalized by, the circumstances that create an environment where hostility and violence can take place.
From the acknowledgements:
This book is meant to free, not to capture, a life. For those who see themselves in Bernice, I hope this frees you a little, too.