a small bird
with a terrible hunger,
with a thin beak probing and dipping
and a heart that races so fast

it is only a heartbeat ahead of breaking

Mary Oliver, “Summer Story”

Sometimes the books I enjoy the most are the most difficult to review. Books that I fall in love with seem to blur my critical eye. It can be hard to determine just why a book hit my sweet spot. Was it the subject matter, the underlying theme, the characters, the setting, the structure, the writing style — or, as in the case of Stephen P. Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, all of these? Obscure World War II history — check. End of life issues — check. Multiple story lines (including a book within a book) — check. Admirable (if imperfect) characters — check. It’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

When Deborah Birch arrives home from an emotionally and physically draining day as a hospice nurse, she has a second job waiting for her: caring for Michael, her emotionally damaged husband. After his third tour of duty in Iraq, Michael “returned home in a permanent mood of nitroglycerine, always just one bump away from exploding”.

Deborah’s current patient, retired history professor Barclay Reed, is a “crusty coot” whose sharp tongue and temper have sent several other hospice nurses packing. Deborah is able to see the fear and emotional pain that are buried beneath his disagreeable exterior, and she is fascinated by his brilliant mind. Gradually, Barclay (“‘Professor Reed, ideally'”) and Deborah (“‘I shall call you Nurse Birch'”) form a bond, as he helps her understand her husband’s warrior mentality and she helps him make the most of his final days.

Deborah says she is “known for sticking. For staying. For never giving up. It wasn’t true only of patients but reflected my whole life”. She stays with her patients, literally until they take their last breaths, and she stays with Michael, even though “he wasn’t a husband; he was a hand grenade”.  Deborah’s job is to help patients surrender to death, but she is having a much more difficult time helping her tormented husband find peace: “Iraqi insurgents were not the only adversaries Michael needed a truce with. It was me, too.”

The Hummingbird inspires the reader to consider the meaning of peace. When do we fight and when do we surrender? Can it take greater courage to surrender than to keep fighting? How do we let go of fear and develop trust?  The Professor’s unpublished book, The Sword, examines these questions through the story of Japanese pilot Ichiro Soga and his journey to reconciliation. Kiernan deftly weaves chapters from Barclay’s manuscript throughout The Hummingbird, illuminating Deborah and Michael’s path toward healing. As Kiernan mentions in his Author’s Note, the essential details of Soga’s story are historically accurate.

Kiernan knows his material when it comes to hospice; a career journalist, he is the author of a nonfiction book called Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Hospital System and frequently speaks and consults on how to expand use of hospice, palliative care and advance directives. Deborah’s scenes with Barclay, as well as flashbacks to her experiences with other dying patients and their families, are vivid and authentic  — due not only to Kiernan’s clear writing but to his familiarity with hospice. Sue Boucher (The Cottage Book Shop) texted me as she was reading The Hummingbird to say: “I’m fascinated by Deborah’s experiences with patients at the end of their lives. She has such insight into the process.”

Curious readers may be wondering why the title of the book is The Hummingbird. A patient of Deborah’s carved her a hummingbird, a talisman she touches every day as “a solid reminder that every patient, no matter how sick or impoverished, gives lasting gifts to the person entrusted with his care.” Sometimes, Deborah discovers, these are “unexpected gifts” from the unlikeliest of sources.

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