“She has not resigned herself to anything but occupying the space she is in, taking one raspy breath whenever she can, and trying to come back to her skinself. When she does this, she has peace with whatever happens. A knowledge is born in her: that she has been to Then. And. She might not make it back. To Now.”
Bernice “Birdie” Meetoos is a Cree woman from northern Alberta. When we meet her, she is living in Gibsons, British Columbia, in an apartment above the bakery where she works. However, it quickly becomes evident that Birdie is bed-ridden, though the exact reasons for her condition are unclear. From her bed, her mind stumbles through past, present, and future, tracing the path from Loon Lake to Gibsons, through foster care and Catholic school, and years of living rough on the streets of Edmonton. Gathered around Birdie are her boss, Lola, her cousin, Freda, and her aunt Val. The women take turns caring for her, and one another, as Birdie travels through a dream journey where she must face the violence of her past, and the uncertainty of her future.
Birdie drops the reader into the middle of a fragmented stream of consciousness that is hard to settle into. The timelines shift almost unceasingly, as Birdie slips between past and present. She is lost in memory, and yet her awareness is constantly being pulled back to the bakery and the goings on around her, though she reacts to none of it. Author Tracey Lindberg is constantly reminding the reader of the other timeline, so that it is impossible to settle into either one; past and present exist simultaneously. At the same time, we have no idea why Birdie is the way she is. Lindberg continues in this fashion for the first 40% or hundred pages of the book. As the fragments of Birdie’s past begin to form a tentative picture, the stylistic choice makes sense; Birdie’s mind has been fractured by trauma, and she is struggling to heal. At times she shies away from more difficult memories, and returns to them later. This section seems to function more like a conversation, connecting through loosely related ideas rather than following a linear progression.
Beyond this point, the narrative shifts between Lola, Freda, Val, and Birdie, continuing to incorporate aspects of magic realism. However, the fragmentary narration settles down a bit after this and the story begins to flow more freely. Birdie’s memories and dreams still leach in, but there are longer unbroken expanses of narrative, settled into either the past or the present without interruption from the other. Between chapters, Lindberg inserts the character of a storyteller, who mirrors the story using an owl to represent Birdie, and a wolf to represent those who have preyed on her. These small allegorical representations encapsulate Birdie’s journey in a poetic fashion.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is the way it showcases the relationships between the women, both those who are family by blood, and those have been welcomed into that circle. In a family where the men are not to be trusted, Freda and Birdie have done their best to look out for one another, even when their living conditions make their relationship fraught. Birdie sometimes refers to Freda as her “sistercousin” as words struggle to encapsulate the breadth of their bond. Val in particular has failed her girls more than once, but she continues to love them and protect them when she can. Even Birdie’s mother, Maggie, is a notable woman, if more by her absence from the story than her presence, and the hole that leaves in Birdie’s life, and her inner circle.
On day three of Canada Reads 2016, the questions for the panelists dug into what they loved about their books from storyline to writing style, and also returned to the question of which remaining book best embodied the theme of “starting over.” Panelists had a lot of love for the writing style in The Hero’s Walk, and the fast-moving plot of The Illegal. Defending Birdie, Bruce Poon Tip highlighted the storytelling skill necessary to pull off the nonlinear timeline. He also singled out Birdie as the book that taught him the most, particularly about sisterhood, a subject he said he didn’t realize he needed help understanding until he read the book and had to try to parse the relationship between the women. Birdie did not come up as much in the answers of the other panelists, though Vinay Virmani mentioned the Cree poetry, and Adam Copeland named Birdie as the character who most convinced him people can change because she made an active choice between returning to the world and passing on. Clara Hughes also felt that the character of Lola in Birdie embodied change. However, when it came time to vote, Virmani, Hughes, and Farah Mohamed all cast their ballots against Birdie, sending this title—which has been leading the viewer favourites poll all week—home on day three. The Illegal by Lawrence Hill and The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami will face off tomorrow in the final.
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