Birdie tells the story of a young Cree woman from her childhood on reserve in Northern Alberta, through foster care and street life in Edmonton, to young adulthood in coastal BC where years of piled-up trauma force her into a near-coma. It also tells the story of “Canada 150” with the band-aid pulled off, all the wounds and stitches of colonialism exposed. It also tells the story of healing, through community, through tradition, through sharing meals and conversations and silences. It is a good story.
(Illustration: George Littlechild)
Depending on your cultural lens, you might call Birdie’s near-coma a mental breakdown, a fast, a vision quest, or something else. It reminded me of Franny’s couch time in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, but more severe, more culturally significant, and more quiet. Whatever its name, the action is familiar. There are times when talking is too hard, and then eye-contact is too hard, and then eating, and standing, and it is finally time to drop everything and focus all energy inward. Birdie doesn’t wipe away the hurt of all that she’s experienced, but like a soldier suffering PTSD, she works towards remembering it without reliving it. Holding her past without shouldering it as a burden.
It helps that she has three strong women holding vigil over her – her aunt, her sistercousin, and her boss/landlord. These women aren’t magical caregivers – they second-guess and they worry and even get angry with Birdie. But they are patient and present. For a human in the throes of a mental crisis, patience and presence are comforting gifts.
Author Tracey Lindberg understands humans, their flaws and their faltering desires to be good and kind and proud. She exhibits real strength in articulating complex, conflicting human gestures with creative language. Take this moment, when Birdie’s boss sees her in the morning, wearing last night’s clothes.
““You have a nice time last night?” Lola asked her, unkindly, and would have been hurt if you suggested she was being unkind.”
Or this beautiful description of parenthood:
“[Birdie] still felt like her mother’s ability to love more than one child at once was meager… When she said as much to her Auntie Val, the bigwomanlittlesistermother had patted her hand. “No. Birdie. No. She doesn’t love Freda more. She loves you too much to treat you like that.”
Bernice had never known what that meant until she found a bird, still on the ground, after hitting their picture window. She fed it and watered it, watched it for hours and prayed for it to heal. She would not touch it, though. She wanted it to find its kin and fit in again without her tainting it.”
Birdie does not give solutions to the shattered glass that is Settler-Indigenous relations north of the 49th parallel, but it is insightful. Bernice spends some time with a British foster family in Edmonton, where everything is taken care of but things are still not OK. The foster parents do everything I would do – they give Bernice privacy and safety, healthy meals, trips back home – but healing is not that simple. Lindberg lets readers inside the minds of both Bernice and Foster Mom as they try to fix all the broken bits, and shows how incredibly complicated healing can be. Humans are not math problems, and simply adding on what was subtracted in years previous does not bring the equation back to health. These scenes demonstrate the path towards reconciliation: patience, frustration, miscommunication, patience, patience, patience.
Birdie is sad, as it exposes the complicated road to personal and cultural reconciliation. But it is hopeful too, as some characters demonstrate love even when they’re unsure, even when they don’t understand.