LitStack Review: The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan

by Sharon Browning

The HummingbirdThe Hummingbird
Stephen P. Kiernan
William Morrow
Release Date:  September 8, 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-236954-3

Deborah Birch, the heroine of Stephen P. Kiernan’s novel, The Hummingbird, must not have been an easy character to write.  She is no sharp tongued dilettante nor sharp eyed detective, no struggling artist confronting her past nor wide eyed twixter dipping a toe into her future.  She is an experienced and compassionate hospice nurse, caring for the terminally ill and dying.  She also is married – no kids – to an auto repair shop owner and National Guard veteran who, after three tours of duty in Iraq (two in the motor pool, the last as a sniper) suffers from severe PTSD and paranoia, with anxiety and anger management issues.

Deb’s latest client is a cantankerous tenured University professor, a nationally recognized expert on WWII.  He is 78 years old, with no declared family, in the last stages of kidney cancer.  Deb has been the third nurse assigned to him in 12 days, and this after he had already rejected the care of the other two home-health agencies in the area.  Barclay Reed, at his private Lake Oswego address, was going to be more than a mere handful, apparently.

But Deborah Birch RN MSW is “known for sticking.  For staying.  For never giving up.”  As the wooden hummingbird on her desk (carved for her by a patient with end-stage emphysema) reminds her, “every patient, no matter how sick or impoverished, gives lasting gifts to the person entrusted with his care.”

If that sounds grandiose, so be it.  Because I sweep my thumb down the back of that bird before each new patient, and not for good luck.  I do it to remind myself that I receive something meaningful from every person.  I gain much more than I give.

Which doesn’t mean working with Barclay Reed, PhD, is going to be easy.  Not by a long shot.

The Hummingbird is also the story of pilot Ichiro Songa, who, in 1942, launches his E14 aircraft from the deck of the Japanese fleet’s I-25 submarine, becoming the only enemy pilot to ever fly over and drop bombs on American soil.  The bombs fell in the forests of Oregon, in an attempt to create a massive forest fire and evoke chaos.  Instead, it exposed major weaknesses in the United States’ domestic land defenses and fissures in the military chain of command.

Past, present, and a tenuous future all swirl around Deb and her efforts to bring comfort and closure to Professor Reed as his body slowly succumbs to his disease.  But the old man is not the only one suffering, nor are his the only demons that need to be put to rest.  Even as Deb moves with the confidence of her calling, she struggles with the turmoil of her own life, and the result is a book that is both uplifting and unsettling, compassionate and petulant, selfless and justifiably selfish.

Author Stephen Kiernan’s background in journalism is evident in The Hummingbird.  He is able to take large ideas – compassion, loyalty, suffering – and give them very human faces, aided by snippets of condensed memories and hard-hitting, no holds barred reality.  Deb’s experience, and her own perspective, allows her to share insight with us as readers as she draws parallels to and insight from former patients and their diverse situations, both comforting and disturbing.  One gets the feeling that many of her memories are actual case studies (as Mr. Kiernan is the author of a nonfiction book on end of life issues, Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System, and advises on a palliative care initiative in New Hampshire) – they have that ring of truth to them, more genuine than any imagination could give them.

But there are two specific episodes that also speak to Mr. Kiernan’s ability to put aside the “pretty prose” and get down and dirty with the reader:  once where Deb is having to manhandle her charge into creating an advanced care planning directive, outlining for him (and us) what often happens during a 9-1-1 emergency call for a cardiac arrest (“By the way, it’s not like on TV.”), and a lesson Deb herself receives when she decides to go with Michael, her husband, to a private shooting range to learn about the weapon that he had used in Iraq.  Her reaction when realizing – actually seeing – the devastation of a hit with a sniper rifle (on a water jug target) is intense and immediately sobering.

It was as if he had punched me in the stomach.  I staggered back, my arms dropping.  This is what they saw.  This was what they remembered.

I turned to Michael, who stood with his shoulders still stooped.  I came before him, wilted.  “Thirty-one times?”

Those moments are masterful.  And the characterization of Ichiro Songa – the subject of Barclay Reed’s unpublished manuscript, which led (for various reasons) to his academic exile – is especially poignant in its understanding of a culture beyond our own, in conflict with our own.  These narrative devices are compelling, and give the book a strong sense of credence.

The story itself does not always fare so well.  Sometimes it seems like the main story runs a little thin, unable to match the richness of the moments that wend through it.  While nothing goes truly awry, there are sidesteps that feel unfairly disingenuous.

For example, a major theme in the book is truth, yet in one important variation where Deb is charged by Professor Reed to decide if his discredited manuscript is true or not, she goes for a majority of the book waffling between its veracity and it being an impactful fabrication.  Not once is she enticed to use the Internet in determining if the events happened or if the people named actually existed.  While it is true that the Professor mentions once – once! – that she should make up her own mind “without consulting any outside source, or expert, or superficial Internet nonsense,” it’s hard to believe that Deb would agree to such a restriction, even to placate a dying man.  After all, she violates his “no outside help” directive in other ways.  Are we really supposed to believe that the temptation of Google will not at least be debated, at least once?  Not unthinkable, no, but hard to believe.

Still, the book is admirable in its unwillingness to be bogged down in sentimentality or maudlin emotionalism.  (The first quote in this review is about as smarmy as it gets.)  Deb, Barclay Reed, Michael, all come off as complex, authentic, strong characters; none of them are perfect, each one of them exhibits moments where they are peevish, selfish and unreasonable.  Yet they each also evidence a depth of character that keeps them from simply being a plot vehicle or emotional counterpoint for another.  Even the secondary characters in The Hummingbird have no sense of artifice to them.

When dealing with an emotionally charged subject as the inevitable end of life, it’s almost expected of our “entertainments” to tug at the heartstrings or go for the tearful denouement.  Thankfully, Stephen P. Kiernan treats his narrative with the same care that Deborah Birch treats her patients:  respectfully, graciously, and with great care for the body and the soul.  Despite its somewhat somber subject matter, The Hummingbird is an uplifting read, one that should be entered into without reserve and with anticipation of a satisfying and humane tale.

~ Sharon Browning

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