In Stephen Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, three stories unspool simultaneously. In the first, Deborah Birch, a hospice nurse, is trying to care for and understand her husband Michael, who has recently returned from his third deployment in Iraq and is suffering from PTSD. In the second, Deb cares for an elderly patient, Barclay Reed, who is dying from liver cancer. He proves to be a difficult patient, but Deb learns how to get through to him and ultimately learns from him. The third story is contained in a book written by Professor Reed, a military history scholar, about a Japanese pilot who attacked the coast of Oregon during World War II.
These subplots are connected, of course: Professor Reed helps Deb to understand her husband’s demons, while she helps him ease into his final decline into death. Michael begins to connect with his wife again after he finally shares some of his pain and fears with her. And the story of the Japanese pilot, which I admittedly skimmed, brings the themes of forgiveness and acceptance into relief.
I found the depiction of hospice care and the ways the dying (and their families) can be brought comfort at the end of life to be the most compelling part of the book. Kiernan clearly has some experience with hospice nursing, or he did a lot of research. The sections on PTSD were also interesting, though I found Deb’s patience with her husband a little unrealistic. I probably should have read the Japanese history sections more carefully, but I just couldn’t get into them. I like books about soldiers and veterans, but I don’t enjoy detailed depictions of warfare.
The writing was a little clunky at times. There were distracting cliches that really stood out to me – after Deb’s first visit to Professor Reed, “he’d won [her] heart already – which detracted from the book. Michael’s sudden taking to a dog that Deb brought home, after stating that he was afraid of dogs ever since Iraq – was sudden. And I’m always suspect of characters who call other people “hey, lover”. Who does that? Repeatedly?
So The Hummingbird was a mixed bag for me but I am ultimately glad I read it. The good parts were pretty memorable and gave me a lot of perspective on hospice.
The Depressing-o-Meter is off the charts on this one. (It’s about hospice and PTSD!) 9 out of 10.