Even when Bernice is liked, she’s not necessarily liked for the person she is, but for the person someone believes her to be. This is largely why she leaves herself, why she learns to fly.
“I wonder how fascinated she’d be if she knew that I’d been fucked before I was eleven, Bernice thinks. That I smoked pot every day; that I have read every Jackie Collins novel ever written – even the bad ones. Nope, that dying savage thing is what floats her boat.”
This “leaving” is a complicated process, but readers are introduced to it immediately. When we meet her, Birdie can fly. But, paradoxically, she is grounded too. She is not always like a rock skipping across the water, but sometimes more like a sinking stone.
“Lying in her bed, now, she thinks of that period as the time when she learned to leave. It became part of her, a continuum of change, growing in her until she could fully move and bend. Memories. Bad thoughts. Time. It felt like a rock skipping on water, so much so that she strangely is not shocked when she sinks. She has been strange for so long that she cannot even attempt to understand what normal might feel like. For her, coming back into her self after her time felt precisely normal.”
Even her mother makes her feel as though she should be someone else. This kind of denial and denigration seeps into her being. It both makes her want to fly and holds her pinned to the ground. (And practically speaking, Birdie is a heavy woman. Her kind of flight demands a mechanism both delicate and substantial.)
“All of it added to a knowledge, lodged as deep as those chocolate bar wrappers in a purse, that Maggie would rather an Other. Another. Another life. With fewer nieces, nephews and Bernices around. Kids who weren’t so noisy. A kid who she wouldn’t catch gulping mashed potatoes by the handful in the kitchen after dinner one night so that she couldn’t fit hand-me-down clothes and had to have new clothes every time she gained weight. Which was often.”
Her coping mechanisms take on a new sophistication — and also a new darkness — as she ages.
“She felt, at times, invisible. That helped. She could change, too. She could appear and disappear, using only words to / unmask herself. Some people, mostly crazy people, could see her. Not that anyone recognized her. She wore black only, hid in crowds and walked the city streets with her eyes down. Some days, on the best of days, she met women’s eyes – only street women – women who were the seen/unseen. On other days, she felt oddly disconnected from her body, like she did not know the nature of her form.”
As the novel unfolds, readers spend a significant amount of time in Birdie’s skin, but also out of it (which is true, too, for Birdie), so that there is a fresh perspective which is both disorienting and stabilizing.
“Bernice has been immersed in travelling, lately. The three women moving around her generate some sort of resistance that allows her to travel back and forth (Now and Then, Here and There) without much pain. Somewhere in the back of her mind there is an idea. A memory. A piece of something yet unearthed. ”
The chapters take a ritual form, introducing readers to new words and concepts, and to the perspective of one who can fly. Each chapter’s opening segments are exceptionally lyrical, but there are beautiful splashes of poetry throughout the novel. At times, the sensory detail is immersive, as in this passage (one of my favourites):
“Her ache for home, home being something she does not yet understand, and a place she has never been, brushes over her like a skirt hem on the floor. If the women could see her insides, she imagines they would see a churning, a quickening, a real live storm inside of her. Whatever was happening, her pulse remains the same while her skin feels lit from within.”
Bernice is keenly watching for this light. “Bernice had always thought that Freda’s confidence flowed out from under shadowed crevasses and angled bones. That some mélange of svelte certitude, magazine model skinny happiness leeched out of her in places where silence and stuffing found Bernice wanting. It would be years before she understood that the funhouse mirror of their shared childhood would alter the ways they saw themselves and warp what others saw in them.”
But she struggles to locate it. “She is so hungry. Not for food, not for drink, not for foreign skin. This appetite that sits next to her now is relatively unknown and persistent. She is hungry for family. For the women she loves. For the sounds of her language. For the peace of no introduction, no backstory, no explanation. She misses her aunties, her cousins and her mom. She thinks that she maybe misses who her dad was, too, but isn’t sure. She wouldn’t know what that felt like. She misses the Cree sense of humour. She misses her Auntie Val. Misses the production of her auntie getting ready.”
And even though she had a troubled childhood, part of her is forever looking back to it, seeking to root herself, somewhere and somehow.
“She was sorry to have left her room. She looked at the pile of library books on her floor (the carpet was the kind that is supposed to feel like grass when it’s green) and felt better. Back then, Saturday was just about her favourite day of all. She would spend about four hours in the town library, about three and a half hours too many by Miss Robbins’ watch. Miss Robbins, Bernice imagined, was at least seventy years old. She was almost certain that Miss Robbins, Clara Robbins, was a smoker. She had arthritic fingers and knew every title on the shelves of the Grande Prairie public library. The skin on her fingers, spotted, yellow and papery thin, would tap past books at an alarming rate as she tried to select what Bernice could read.”
Miss Robbins doesn’t think that ten-year-old Bernice Meetoos should be reading Judy Blume (she announces this in what Birdie describes as “an in-sin-u-ating voice” but Bernice is not your average ten-year-old girl. “Where she went depended upon something that she could not control. All she knew was that she usually ended up someplace where the past lives with the present, and they mingled like smoke. Once it cleared, she was almost sure she would see her future. She never did, though.”
She has faced a series of challenges with quiet perseverence. Bolstered from unexpected sources of strength (including a strange attachment, almost worship, of Pat John, who played Jesse on the quintessential CBC drama, “The Beachcombers”, one of very few aboriginal figures in Canadian pop culture when Birdie was growing up), she endures.
“She never found the perfect book and contented herself with stories about families that sounded perfect.”
So even though there is nothing about her life which she would define as perfect, Birdie tells her own story, in her own voice. Which is quite a feat, in a language and a culture which has built its power upon silencing these stories.
“She is a patchwork quilt made up of who she would have been. If her life had turned out differently.” Tracey Lindberg’s novel is stitched together delicately and deliberately: it adds an essential and beautiful block to the literary quilt.
Tracey Lindberg’s novel also counts towards the 13 works by indigenous writers I’m determined to read for the 10th annual Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set. The others I’ve read in recent months include Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls (2002), Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars (2010), the comics anthology Moonshot (2015), edited by Hope Nicholson, and Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008).
Have you been reading any aboriginal authors lately? Is Birdie one you’ve already read? Did you watch Canada Reads the year it was featured? Is it flying onto your TBR list now ?