Monday, August 10, 2015

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird by Stephen Kiernan
In The Hummingbird, Stephen Kiernan combines three separate plot threads to tell his story so seamlessly that shifts between plots are hardly noticeable.   One side plot involves the problems that nurse Deborah Birch's husband is having in readjusting to civilian life after returning from his third deployment (a tour in which he served as a sniper) to Afghanistan.  Another recounts Deborah's day-to-day experiences as a hospice nurse dealing with a particularly irritable and demanding patient.  And the third side plot is a piece of World War II history called The Sword, written by Deborahs irritable patient himself, a little book that she is reading aloud to him at his bedside. 

Author Stephen P. Kiernan
Taken together, the three threads tell a touchingly beautiful story that just might have happened exactly this way in a perfect world - a story with an ending that I was, of course, rooting for, but one that is, in reality, an unlikely one.  But that's a minor criticism because I found myself willing to suspend my skepticism for the duration of the novel and, at the end, I felt so good about the way things worked out for Deborah Birch that I was ready to stand up and cheer.  Stephen Kiernan had me all the way.

Michael Birch is filled with guilt and rage and he barely communicates with his wife these days, much less touches her or allows her to touch him.  Deborah knows that he is having nightmares and she fears what that combination of emotions might drive him to do.  She has heard all the stories about returning veterans who suddenly explode into violence (or suicide) and she worries that Michael is capable of both. 

Perhaps Deborah is lucky that her new hospice patient, Barclay Reed, is proving to be such a challenging man because dealing with the retired historian demands so much concentration and creativity on her part that she has no time to worry about Michael's situation during her work day.  And, as the days go by and Mr. Reed has not fired her as he did several other of his previous caretakers, she finds that both of them are enjoying all the verbal "jousting" that comprises their day together.  But it is when Reed asks that she read to him from the last book he was working on before his illness that the two really begin to understand and appreciate each other.

The Sword is Reed's recounting of a World War II incident that has largely been lost to time.  It seems that (and this is factual, by the way) a lone Japanese submarine reached the coast of Oregon, complete with a small aircraft its crew could quickly assemble.  Along for the ride was a specially trained pilot whose mission was to drop four firebombs in the Oregon forest in the hope that an uncontrollable forest fire would result - damaging American morale as much as it damaged the forest.  But the real story only happened after the war when the pilot was invited back to Oregon by some of the very people involved in putting out the small fire caused by his bombing mission - starting a relationship between the him and one little Oregon town that would last for decades.

So how does all of this come together?  You'll have to read The Hummingbird to find out - and you will, I think, be happy that you did.

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