Litstack Rec: The Refugees & The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird, by Stephen P. Kiernan

Deborah Birch, the heroine of Stephen P. Kiernan’s novel, The Hummingbird, must not have been an easy character to write. She is no 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 to Michael, an auto repair shop owner and National Guard veteran who, after three tours of duty in Iraq, suffers from severe PTSD.

Deb’s latest client is a cantankerous tenured University professor, a nationally recognized expert on WWII. He is 78, with no declared family, in the last stages of kidney cancer. Deb has been the third nurse assigned to him in 12 days – Barclay Reed was going to be more than a mere handful, apparently.

But Deborah Birch 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.”

Which doesn’t mean working with Barclay Reed is going to be easy. Not by a long shot.
The Hummingbird is also the story of 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.

Two specific episodes speak to Mr. Kiernan’s ability to put aside the “pretty prose” and get down and dirty with the reader: one 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 then a lesson Deb herself receives when she decides to go with Michael to a private shooting range to learn about the weapon he had used as a sniper 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 narrative 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 scene where Deb is charged by Professor Reed to decide if his discredited manuscript is true or not, she waffles between its veracity and it being an impactful fabrication without once being 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 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 ridiculous restriction.

Still, the book is admirable in its unwillingness to be bogged down in sentimentality or maudlin
emotionalism. Deb, Barclay, Michael, all come off as complex, authentic 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.

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 as 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 isan 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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