If I had a loonie for every person who’s told me they read The Orenda and now they have a handle on this whole colonialism thing, well, I’d have a lot of loonies. I’m not anti-Orenda. Oh no. To delve into the legacy of Canadian colonialism is to pummel ourselves with the cruelty of our forefathers. But pity is not going to forge an understanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
There are many ways to tell a story, and humour is an oft-undervalued tool for this task – perhaps because some non-aboriginal readers feel uncomfortable acknowledging anything comedic in such an emotionally charged situation. But humour is more complex than that. It can be an emotional pressure valve, without losing its bite. The Absurdists understood this. And so does Tracey Lindberg. Birdie, Lindberg’s debut novel, is about a Cree-Métis woman who moves from northern Alberta to Gibsons, B.C., home of the beloved CBC television series The Beachcombers. A girlhood obsession with Pat John, who played Bruno Gerussi’s aboriginal cohort, Jesse, is what brings Bernice, known as Birdie, to Gibsons. (The Jesse storyline is actually minor and, some might argue, underrealized. It’s Chekhov’s gun left unfired – if you put a Beachcomber in a CanLit novel, you’d better use him, no?) But while her celebrity crush on “a healthy working Indian man,” prompts Bernice’s move, she’s about to take a much greater journey.
Birdie is both idiosyncratic and relatable, and very, very Canadian. The kind of Canada John Ralston Saul envisions in A Fair Country, “inspired as much by four centuries of life with the indigenous civilizations as by four centuries of immigration.” For those who take their humour black, Birdie can also be funny as hell. Bernice is witty, sardonic and downright snarky. She refers to her landlord’s old, white, poker-playing buddies as the Whippets, numbered one to four, and she’s “not so fond of Whippet Three (who replaced the original Whippet Three who did not fight a valiant fight against pancreatic cancer).” Harsh.
But since readers are privy to an unflinching view into Bernice’s life, there’s no confusion about where she honed her brutal outlook. Sexual abuse and mental health are some of the broad themes explored here, but much of Birdie’s beauty is in the details, such as Bernice’s first bra-shopping experience:
“There was a certain comfort in having someone so assured make decisions at such an embarrassing time. Still, it was hard to remember that when her kohkom” – grandmother – “whipped out a piece of twine, wrapped it around her rib cage and passed it to the wide-eyed sales clerk.
‘This big,’ she had said. ‘She was this big.”
Yes, Bernice is fat, and Lindberg regularly reminds us of this. She is a “big beautiful Cree woman,” who has padded her body in a last-ditch attempt to protect her soul.
We spend a lot of time in Bernice’s head and a lot of time exploring her past. It gets exhausting. The novel’s timeline is a mess. I suspect that’s by design, but it doesn’t make the reading any easier. Darting around between events from Bernice’s past becomes more confusing thanks to the sometimes-repetition of these events. Readers may find themselves flipping back through the pages to confirm that, yes, they’ve read about this already, only now it’s stitched into a different sequence. Those who enjoy a linear or even a cleverly assembled non-linear recounting of events will be frustrated. Total surrender to the memory soup that floods Bernice’s troubled mind may be required, but it’s still a tough swim. While disorientation can be a powerful storytelling tool, readers still deserve a road map. Besides Jesse, the Frugal Gourmet (a.k.a. Jeff Smith) figures more prominently in the story, a kind of spirit guide for Bernice. Smith was a public access television phenomenon in the eighties. (His show ran for 14 years, but ended abruptly after sexual-abuse allegations were levelled against him.) A weird choice for a spirit guide, but as Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
I can’t claim that Lindberg’s goal is to smash colonial attitudes with this book, but fiction is a powerful ally in this revolution. We need to experience a broad range of characters and hear all kinds of voices. We need to laugh sometimes. Lindberg isn’t the only aboriginal writer who understands this – Eden Robinson and Lee Maracle come to mind. She deftly addresses the lack of national empathy toward aboriginal women by dodging cultural stereotypes and celebrating the contradictions that make Bernice human. Despite its flaws, Birdie establishes Lindberg as an important new voice.
Carleigh Baker is a writer who lives in Vancouver.Report Typo/Error