Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Book Review: 'The Hummingbird' by Stephen P. Kiernan
“The Hummingbird,” by Stephen Kiernan, is the moving story of Deborah Birch, a hospice nurse and social worker who faces daunting personal and professional challenges. She lives in Oregon and has been assigned to care for a retired history professor, seventy-eight year old Barclay Reed. The solitary and acerbic Professor Reed was forced out of academia in disgrace. He is now terminally ill after having been diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer.
This work of fiction has three interconnected story lines. Besides having to cope with the cantankerous professor, Deborah longs to recapture the affection of her husband, Michael, a National Guardsman whose deployments in Iraq left him severely traumatized. The third element has Deborah reading aloud to the professor from his unpublished manuscript, “The Sword.” In it, Reed recounts events that he claims occurred during and after World War II.
In this evocative and insightful book, Kiernan explores how people react to adversity and, in addition, poses a challenging question: Does it require more strength and courage to control oneself or to exert power over others? Moreover, the author provides details about the ways in which skilled hospice nurses help patients and their families take care of unfinished business while there is still time. Of course, it is heartbreaking to watch someone suffer. Deborah, who narrates, describes her efforts to remain receptive and understanding even when she is frustrated, irritated, and exhausted. Fortunately, she is mature enough to admit her mistakes; pays careful attention to verbal and non-verbal cues; and never stops looking for a way into a grieving person’s heart. In lesser hands, “The Hummingbird” might have been heavy-handed and cloyingly sentimental. Instead, it is a wise and transformative novel that is psychologically astute and written in beautifully paced, expressive, and understated prose that is all the more poignant for its simplicity.
Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right