One of the five books shortlisted for Canada Reads 2016, Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie follows the story of a Cree woman, Bernice — often referred to as Birdie — in a physical and spiritual journey.
Bernice Meetoos is a survivor of sexual assault, and her story spans both the original abuse, which occurred mostly when she was a child, and the resulting trauma, which continued to affect her long after the original events. Her experiences result in a period of time spent in a mental ward and another period where she’s no longer able to speak or interact with the world.
Her narrative, like her process to recovery, isn’t a linear one. Birdie’s path takes her from Loon Lake in Alberta to Gibsons, BC, and makes a number of stops along the way, which are explored mainly through Birdie’s memories. She remains in a “sleepwake” state for most of the novel, with the reader unaware until the end whether Birdie will emerge from it.
Throughout the novel, there’s a continuous interplay between past and present, memory and reality, dream-state and wakefulness. While this allows readers to experience Birdie’s story at a deeper level, it also leaves readers questioning the chronology of events and wondering at times whether characters are present in real time or in a memory.
The insertion of “storyteller” tales between chapters also gives the reader a better understanding of Birdie’s experience. Reminiscent of the oral storytelling traditions fundamental to many Indigenous communities, these short diversions distill the meaning of the chapters and tie the experience of Bernice and her family to the broader story of a spiritual journey and the Pimatisewin — translated for the purposes of the novel as the “Tree of Life.”
The Tree is considered a family member in Birdie’s community and it’s an integral part of Birdie’s own journey. Like her, it suffers throughout the novel. Birdie remembers and dreams that she wants to help the Tree, bringing an offering of a feast to the Tree during the lucid period of her own healing process. The use of elements like the storytelling, Cree words with translations, as well as the inclusion of cultural practices as a crucial part of Birdie’s story, allows readers who aren’t well-versed in Cree traditions, like myself, the opportunity to develop a more holistic understanding of Birdie’s experience as a Cree woman.
Lindberg’s ability to familiarize readers with Birdie’s story and her cultural context while contending with the character’s experience with sexual assault — an issue that transcends cultural bounds — demonstrates her literary brilliance. The author highlights the role of female community building in encouraging the healing process.
“There certainly is a sense that women can make their own families, and that diverse women can have entirely separate experiences and draw together to heal and help each other,” Lindberg said in an interview inserted at the end of the novel.
While it’s Birdie who carries the heaviest burden, the female characters surrounding her have their own stories to tell. The author includes these stories by switching perspectives and showing their role in Birdie’s journey.
From Aunt Val to Birdie’s “sistercousin” Skinny Freda to Lola — the bakery owner who provides Birdie with a job and a place to stay in Gibsons — and even Birdie’s mother Maggie, who is present within the story primarily through her absence, all of the women are connected by traumatic events that haunt their pasts.
Their strength, and the bonds they form through their love of Birdie and their quest to heal her, is at the core of the story.
The women, who are there for Birdie while she contends with her past in a silent, unmoving state, provide hope for her potential recovery.
The combination of the characters, the style of storytelling and the unique cultural traditions portrayed in Lindberg’s novel highlight the importance of becoming better-acquainted with the histories and narratives of Indigenous communities, and emphasize the connections that bridge women across cultural identities.
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