“Maybe she didn’t cry because tears were a currency in her life for so long that holding them back meant she was richer.”
Birdie is an experience. Here the written word weaves between oral and written history, dreamtime and shared reality; it wraps and warps time and memory, ancient knowledge and new experiences, into one dark-yet-playful beast of a novel. Birdie takes grim topics—sexual assault, racism, street-life—on the chin, and yet resonates with powerful indigenous wisdom, female experience and humanhood. This story shines with questioning and knowing. Shortlisted for Canada Reads 2016, Tracey Lindberg’s writing debut is a very important book for people from all walks of life to come across.
The story follows the life and mind of Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman from Northern Alberta wrestling with her history, who lives and works at a bakery in Gibsons, B.C. As her cousin, Skinny Freda, Auntie Val and the bakery owner, Lola, watch over, Bernice journeys inward, revisiting her past and her present as a ghostly observer.
Through a non-linear pattern of narration, poetry and dream-telling, Lindberg unfolds Bernice’s painful story with humour and sadness. Sounds like a contradiction? In many ways, the whole novel is so. The theme of contradiction runs throughout, but instead of asking us to find answers in the middle ground, it exposes the fluidity of life’s adversarial nature. Even the words Lindberg creates to describe actions, relationships and emotions: thinkfeeling, daughterniece, hardsoftly, griefanger—represent how the human experience is both severity and tenderness held together in one hand.
Lindberg uses inventive punctuation to push her reader through the feeling of the story. By releasing from conventional storytelling, the reader is offered much more than simply pages of prose. Without an orator, we often apply our own emphasis to the written word, and this can be limiting to understanding or ‘hearing’ the author’s voice. For better or worse, authors who discard the rules often leave the reader breathless in their wake as they figure out the terms of both the story and creative narration on top of it. So, do not be discouraged if at first you are unsure you are meandering in the right direction! As Lindberg writes in an interview (contained at the end of the book), “This book is meant to free, not capture, a life.” So, see if you can enjoy the indirect nature of Birdie and relish walking in her shoes, even if they seem to come untied!
As with all near-life experiences, Birdie leaves an impression and, I think, a very important one especially at this time of much-needed understanding, empathy and reconciliation. To this there is much more to say, but I would suggest reading the book to ‘knowfeel’ for yourself!