What We Thought: I am always on the lookout for books written by indigenous authors – not always an easy task when you are based in the UK – so I was particularly pleased when this year’s CBC Canada Reads programme introduced me to Birdie – a book by and about a present-day Cree woman.
Tracey Lindberg is a citizen of As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree and comes from the Kelly Lake Cree Nation community. She is a lawyer teaching Indigenous studies and Indigenous law at two Canadian universities, and describes herself as “next in a long line of argumentative Cree women.” Birdie is her first novel.
Birdie is the nickname for Bernice, a ‘big, beautiful Cree woman’ with a deeply troubled past. She has grown up an outsider, living beyond the boundaries a reserve in northern Alberta because her family are not recognised as ‘status Indians.’ She has been fostered, homeless, incarcerated in a sanitorium. She has been called many other names, too – little brown dolly, fat cow, buffalo.
We first meet her in Gibsons, British Columbia, where the long-running television series, Beachcombers was filmed. As a child, Birdie loved Beachcombers, because one of its lead characters was a First Nations man – a rare positive male role model. The men in her real life, the ‘uncles’, are shadowy figures, one of the many things in Birdie’s life that no one talks about.
“No one ever talked about a lot of things. What happened to Freda’s mom ... Why Maggie stopped talking to anyone. When the electricity would come back on. Why no one stayed with the uncles. The silence about what was happening around then seeped into the kitchen, first. Permeating the curtains. Eating into the linoleum. Eventually settling into the fridge.”
In Gibsons, Birdie takes a job in a bakery run by Lola, an elderly white woman. But she can’t escape from the ghosts of her past. She retires to bed, and her spirit seems to leave her body, taking her on a dreamquest. Alarmed, Lola manages to contact Birdie’s Auntie Val and her cousin, skinny Freda, and as the three women gather around Bernice, she finds the strength travel back along the path that led her to Gibsons, and to emerge the other side, stronger and healthier.
Birdie is permeated with many aspects of Cree culture. In particular, pimatisewin, a word which Lindberg uses for the tree of life. In the book, the tree itself it sick, like Bernice, something which seems to represent the damage inflicted on the Cree nation. But when Bernice is at last able to reach out beyond her own suffering, she makes an offering to the tree which is healing for them both.
I must put in a word for the gorgeous cover. The more you study the central image, the more you find hidden depths in what appears, at first, to be a traditional image.
Birdie celebrates the strength, unity and wisdom of Cree women. Lindberg calls this book a ‘love letter to her mom and her aunties.’But at the same time it does not shirk from showing the lasting harm done to indigenous communities by colonisation, resulting in deeply dysfunctional families.
You’ll enjoy this if you loved: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich,
Avoid if you dislike: stories dealing with sexual abuse.
Perfect Accompaniment: Home-baked sweet rolls with tea
Genre: Literary Fiction, Indigenous authors