Review by Deborah Straw
When you hate to put a book down to go on a day trip, when you don’t like leaving the characters behind, you know you’re into a good read. Such was my experience with the novel, The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan.
As I left for the day without book in hand I wondered: Why did Michael no longer like dogs? Who was the young Asian girl in Professor Reed’s photograph? Who was the one person he sat with as she/he died? And what would the ending of life be like for the curmudgeonly professor who lived by the lake?
The novel is set in contemporary times; it takes place in northern Oregon. The narrator is Deborah Birch, a compassionate hospice worker who loves her work. She explains, “Actually hospice is the most enriching job on earth, because a person who is dying savors everything, takes nothing for granted, and that is contagious.”
Deborah spends her time with two men who badly need her, although they may not always recognize this need. One is the elderly, cantankerous, isolated man, Professor Barclay Reed, who is dying of kidney cancer. The first words Deborah hears from his mouth, after he “fires” several hospice workers, are “I haven’t got all day … I am dying in here, you know.” A history professor and prolific author, he was let go from the university for possibly plagiarizing a narrative–others also questioned its veracity—about the end of World War II. Buried way below his gruff exterior is a man who loves sunrises and fresh strawberries.
The other is her husband, Michael, a car mechanic for high-end cars, who after three tours of Iraq, has serious PTSD. He is not the man she married. They no longer even touch, and he will tell her nothing of his war.
While Professor Reed is dying, moving less, eating less and in more pain, he requests that Deborah read his unpublished narrative about a Japanese pilot, for which he lost his academic post, aloud to him. He wants to know if she believes what he has written. (This reading aloud reminded me of E. B. White, who, at the time of his dying, loved to be read to–but only his own books.)
By the way, the hummingbird refers to a small carved wooden bird, “a totem of my work” made for Deborah by Ryan, one of her dying patients. He gave it to her just as he left this world. Other dying patients have given her what she calls “hummingbirds,” tangible and not so tangible gifts.
Although Deborah becomes weary shuttling between these two demanding men and forgoes many of the personal activities that feed her soul, she does learn and grow during the short timeframe of this story.
This is an excellent second novel. The book becomes more thought-provoking and rewarding as it progresses. The characters become more complex, more honest. Not all is tied up neatly by novel’s end (thank goodness), but some of the larger issues and difficulties are. There is sadness and happiness, but the happiness comes in the form of life-changing happiness, based on love and new understanding, not just fleeting moments of joy.
The book is about love, patience and kindness, about having painful, yet essential conversations. This is a mature book, one which will probably be most admired by mature readers as younger people often don’t want to read of war trauma or the dying process. However, if they do read Kiernan’s novel, they might understand a lot more–about what constitutes a good marriage and a good death.
Kiernan, also an award-winning reporter, lives in Vermont with his two sons. He has written one other novel, The Curiosity, and two works of nonfiction, Last Rights and Authentic Patriotism. Intimately connected to the hospice movement, he travels around the country talking about hospice, advance directives and palliative care.