The Hummingbird - Book Review
Stephen Kiernan’s book The Hummingbird tells the story of Deborah, a dedicated hospice nurse who is struggling with her most important patient: her husband Michael. Michael is fighting to make sense of his own life after his third tour in Iraq as an Army sniper. Kiernan brings to light an issue seriously plaguing America today: over 400,000 of returning veterans have been diagnosed with some form of PTSD. Seventeen vets commit suicide in the United States every day.
As Deborah goes from patient to patient each day in Portland, Oregon, her husband Michael tries to put the pieces back together. He is barely able to hold onto his job as a mechanic (only because he owns the garage), and he grapples with anger issues, putting him at odds with the law at one point. He pushes away Deborah each time she tries to approach him to talk about his pain. Deborah, meanwhile, attends to a new patient, the prickly Professor Barclay, who has terminal kidney disease, has no family, and has been disgraced and forced into retirement from Portland State due to an academic scandal. As it turns out, Barclay is an expert on World War 2. He has recently finished his last book about the little-known, failed Japanese bombing campaign of the Pacific Northwest. At this point Kiernan alternates chapters between Deborah and Michael, and Deborah reading aloud Barclay’s book to the ailing yet intellectually jousting professor. His book traces the path of reconciliation of a Japanese veteran and a bitter resident of Oregon who witnessed the Japanese bombings in 1942.
Deborah gains important clues from her interactions with Professor Barclay and through the reading of his book as to how she might help her husband heal from his mental trauma. Tensions mount when Barclay’s estranged daughter appears at the home. Michael also begins to show signs that he has had enough and is ready to take his own life. After a dramatic failed attempt at drowning, Deborah is able to bring Michael back, with the help of an adopted dog (Michael was partly traumatized by wild dogs in Iraq). Barclay makes peace with himself and with his daughter (through a letter), and Deborah stays with him till he passes away.
There are parts of this novel of the novel that I liked. Having gone through hospice recently with my own father, I was able to better understand this underappreciated profession. The issue of veterans is also something people should know more about, and I salute Kiernan for bringing this to our attention. But something about the writing gives me pause to rate this as a great book. Perhaps it is a man trying to write from a woman’s standpoint. I’m not sure, but I wasn’t drawn into the characters. Also, some of the historical background of Japanese history is sloppily and inaccurately presented. Kiernan (or Barclay) writes that Togo was Admiral of the Japanese fleet by the 1940s, and that the man who plotted and carried out the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Yamamoto was Togo’s ‘colleague.’ Actually, they never met personally, and Togo died in 1934 (though Yamamoto did serve under Togo as a midshipman and lost two fingers in the Russo-Japanese War). Also, Kiernan writes that Japan sits in the South Pacific (p. 24) and is located southeast of China (p. 104). There are other sloppy historical mistakes, but the main issues I had with the book were about language and identity. However, The Hummingbird is a worthy read if you want to better understand veteran or hospice issues.