My rating: 4/5 stars
In Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, we are given a unique view of a woman struggling with the terrifying social effects caused by generations of colonialism. It’s a subject that, I’ll admit, I have been blind to for most of my life. I’d like to think, however, that I am opening my eyes and considering that the privileged world I know is mainly a veneer. At the very least, it is an existence made possible by the subjugation of others. You don’t have to agree with me. I’m just putting it out there.
It is brave novels like Birdie that rip away the artificial lenses through which we view our modern-day Canada and show us what lies beneath. Birdie is absolutely spell-binding. Through the eyes of Bernice (or Birdie, as she is called), we are taken from the bed where she lays in the depths of a dark, trauma-induced ‘semi-comatose’ state (she is actually a lot more aware than the people around her are led to believe. I struggled with the words to describe this as I was even confused since she regularly made reference to opening her eyes when no one was around and seemed to move her around on her own when she thought no one was the wiser). She has spent time in the Alberta Regional Health Authority, formerly the sanitarium (or “the San,” as she calls it) and, upon leave, has taken off from Edmonton, AB to Gibbons, BC in search of her childhood idol and crush, Jesse from The Beachcombers To her, he is a stable, gainfully employed Native man. Her mother has left and she is surrounded by her “sistercousin” Freda and her Aunt Valene, as well as her employer Lola. At various points in the novel, the narration switches briefly from her perspective to theirs, but the bulk of the novel is Birdie’s story.
Whether Birdie is faking her current infirmity or not, we can’t really blame her as her life thus far has basically been nothing but hardship and trauma. This novel is difficult to read in a few ways. Lindberg takes an unabashed look at sexual abuse, mental illness, and the loss of (and longing for) a culture while examining the effects on Birdie’s life and family. In addition, the timeline jumps here, there, and everywhere. It can be incredibly tough to follow at times, making it virtually inaccessible to some people who don’t have the patience for that. And that is a shame because this is a very important novel.
Despite the difficult subject matter that is covered in many different books, Lindberg has managed to make this a truly unique novel in a few ways. For one, she continually infuses First Nations culture throughout the journey into Birdie’s turbulent life and blends it with decidedly more Western ideals. Cree language is inserted (and defined – thank you!) throughout the book and Cree poetry makes its way into the end of every chapter. I am NOT a poetry fan, but even I could appreciate the vivid imagery and mirrored poetic story, not to mention the way each excerpt connected to the next.
In short, this book is VERY Canadian. She also makes use of a darkly comic tone in much of the novel. Sometimes while reading, I had to ask myself, “Can I laugh at this?” The answer is, of course, YES!! Humour can be an incredibly effective technique for making grueling, taboo topics more palatable for the masses. I have great respect for Lindberg’s achievements in this area of the book.
This is a very character-driven novel. All of the major players are wonderfully complex and will warm your heart, enrage you, and educate you in turns. Lindberg’s women are damaged, but they are not broken. The family is barely hanging on and is soon to be shattered, but the bonds of aunt, niece, and cousin refuse to be burst asunder. Every family has its secrets. As Birdie “un/consciously” examines her past, she says,
“Freda moved from Maggie’s house to Val’s and became her daughter. No one ever mentioned it. No one ever talked about a lot of things. What happened to Freda’s mom. Why Freda lived with everyone at one time or another. Why Maggie stopped talking to anyone. When the electricity would come back on. Why no one stayed with the uncles. 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.”
Expertly weaving together images and ideas, Tracey Lindberg is able to create a vision for the reader. She shines a spotlight on the issues, forces you to make inferences and assumptions, but is ultimately concise about the plagues her characters are dealing with. Poverty. Alcoholism. Transiency. Body image. Birdie is “a big, beautiful Cree woman” and she is our heroine, our link and spirit guide to her present and her past. She is strong, funny, heartbreaking, and even snappy at times. She tries and fails to fit in at her Catholic, all-white girls’ school, she pokes fun where there is no fun to be had, she longs for a return to traditional ways. There is a lot to love about this character.
Birdie is very well-written and enjoyable. The language is relatable and very precise. I am particularly fond of Lindberg’s technique of combining words (think “sistercousin” “ragemembering” “bigself” “niecedaughter” and so on) that fits in so perfectly with the rest of the text and leaves no mystery in her meaning. Not to mention the fact pretty much any reader could relate to something in this book. The story is relevant and necessary.
Although Lindberg isn’t knocking down any cultural barriers here, she is giving us a bridge and a wider perspective on the stereotypes that plague our country. Birdie is just one of the many First Nations characters we need to meet to try and develop a roadmap through prejudice toward a more honest and accepting version of humanity. She has drawn from her own life experiences as a trauma survivor, a strong advocate for First Nations women, and a Cree woman. I am grateful for the time I spent with her story.
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