Award-winning academic writer Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie caught my eye with it’s gorgeous cover image of an Aboriginal woman, which I would later learn is a reproduction of George Littlechild’s work Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set. And “gorgeous Aboriginal woman” is an image that the CBC Canada Reads 2016 Nominee returns to again and again, cutting through the colonial ideals of beauty to the heart and spirit of the novel’s women in order to outline the gorgeousness in their various kinds of strength and their care for one another.
The novel’s protagonist, Bernice (or Birdie as she prefers to be called when she feels she’s earned it), grows up in the fictional Little Loon First Nation reserve in Alberta before moving to Edmonton in her twenties, and finally following her dreamy crush on Jesse from The Beachcombers and ending up in Gibsons, B.C. In her apartment over the bakery where she works, Bernice’s body falls into a deep sleep while her mind soars in exploration of her past. With her boss Lola, her Aunt Val, and her cousin Skinny Freda keeping watch, Bernice embarks on an internal quest to find wellness.
The biggest strength of the novel is the full-colour depictions of its characters as Bernice sees them. Each is a fully realized colour portrait of a person, complete with imperfections, often devastating ones, that Bernice forgives without knowing there was any forgiving necessary. There are countless ways the people in her life have failed her, but Bernice never once condemns or shames them for being exactly the kinds of people they are. She chooses instead to accept them, or protect them, or simply to love them.
“Val sits beside her niece, on the floor, staring at her for most of the morning. Love falls like thistle seeds and lands gently on top of, around, near, beside Bernice. If she is aware of Val, her love, the seedlings of her dire circumstance, she gives no indication.”
— Tracey Lindberg, Birdie
Each chapter is sandwiched between a pawatamowin (dream) and an acimowin (story). Between these italicized bookends are Bernice’s mental flights of fancy, dipping and disappearing into any moment of her life lived until Now. The lines between Now and Then are blurred and exist all at once with only subtle shifts in tense to direct the reader to where and when Bernice is thinking. Lindberg explains that for Bernice, time is fluid and malleable, she can shape it to her will. Bernice is not subject to time; time is subject to her. The downside of this lovely sentiment is that the first third (at the least) of the book is a confusing jumble of “wait, what’s going on?”
Flitting like a bird through time and memory creates a slack structure full of foreshadowing where the reader finally gets to a breakdown of the event and feels like she’s already been there. And not in a satisfying way. The sentences are poetic, but at the cost of clarity. If you can manage past the soupy beginning of the book, you will be rewarded with other points of view chapters that actually have a solid structure. In these chapters, you learn that Lindberg’s intentionally wobbly grasp of time is a deliberate choice and you can see what the novel could have been if it had taken place more in the physical rather than mental realm.
For all its flaws, I choose, like Bernice, to accept the book as it is, to find its inherent value where its strengths and weakness collide because Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal stories matter. Women’s stories matter. Bernice’s story matters.