Everything I read about Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie told me to expect humour. So naturally, I thought I’d be reading a fairly lighthearted novel. Not so. In fact, Birdie was not what I expected at all.
Birdie, or Bernice Meetoos, is a young Cree woman from Loon Lake, Alberta. Raised by her mother Maggie and Auntie Val, and close to her sistercousin Skinny Freda, Birdie has a small but tight-knit group of women to support her. In fact, Birdie trusts only women. Having suffered for many years at the hands of her uncles, it’s easy to see why. The men in her life are serious abusers of both alcohol and women. One uncle in particular preys on Birdie sexually from the time she is very young.
The lifestyle in her home is so detrimental, in fact, that Birdie is eventually taken into foster care. The Ingelsons are a white couple who do everything that caring parents should do. But Birdie doesn’t believe she deserves a stable home. She soon ends up in the “San” (aka Sanitorium), and then on the streets of Edmonton.
She finally travels to Gibsons, B.C., ostensibly in search of Pat John, the only First Nations character in The Beachcombers. Bernice regards him as “a healthy, working Indian man” and, truth be told, she is somewhat obsessed with him. (Her TV obsession also extends to watching The Frugal Gourmet.)
In Gibsons Bernice meets Lola, a bakery owner who gives her a job and a place to stay. But rather than flourishing, Birdie turns inward. She takes to her bed and stays there. She doesn’t eat or talk. Her spirit leaves her body at times and she begins to scrutinize her life, both present and past.
Fearing the worst, Lola calls Birdie’s family. The women gather. They rally. They care for Birdie, attempting to bring her back to life, to herself. Birdie begins to shut down, willing her life to be over. But these persistent women have endured, and Birdie can too.
Birdie examines the pain of sexual abuse and the tragic upbringing of so many First Nations women. Several times we are reminded that a Native woman can so easily go missing. But beyond the pain there is renewal. There is the strength of women’s character and the power of female friendship and family. There is the ability to laugh, to feast, to enjoy The Frugal Gourmet. There is life.