The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
Reading Challenge: A book with a protagonist who has your occupation
Here’s a fun fact about social workers: for whatever reason (it can’t be our boring lives!), most writers have decided social workers do not make good protagonists. The few who have, I discovered when searching for books featuring social worker protagonists, have chosen to write about social workers in the child protection/family services field. This is actually not what most social workers do, although those who do enter that part of the field have all my admiration and respect.
This narrow view is disappointing, but not really a surprise. Most social workers in movies and TV appear as humorless, clipboard-bearing people who arrive at the home of the quirky but lovable protagonist declaring “I am here to test you, and should you not pass my test, I will take away the child in your care.” Please see The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for prime examples. In fact, the most positive portrayal of a social worker I’ve seen cross the screen has actually been this guy:
That’s Cobra Bubbles from Lilo and Stitch, folks. And that should tell you how far we have to go on the public image of the social worker.
Anywho, this is all a long roundabout way of explaining how I wound up deciding that The Hummingbird‘s narrator, Deborah Birch, RN, MSW (hey, that’s my degree!) had more in common with me professionally than some child protective services worker in Montana who screwed up his own family life (sorry, Fourth of July Creek, maybe next year?). See, I’m a psychiatric social worker, and most accounts of inpatient psych units are from the perspectives of the patients rather than the clinicians. No joy there from book land. However, I did my last year of clinical training in a medical hospital, and did have terminal patients, and used the talented palliative care social workers as a resource on the regular. And Deb, also a nurse, is social work to the core. Everything she said and did as a professional rang true, from what she said about her patients to her relentless self-interrogation of her own decisions. I kept checking the author bio because I was so sure he must be a social worker (apparently he’s not). That’s how true this was.
The Hummingbird (now that I’ve bored you to tears with my thoughts on social workers in fiction, thanks for hanging in) is about Deb, a hospice nurse with a Masters in Social Work, and her relationship with two men: her husband, Michael, recently back from a third tour of duty and struggling with some massive PTSD, and her patient, Barclay Reed, who is a keenly intelligent, snotty academic receiving hospice care. Social work is all about meeting the patient or client where they’re at, and Deb does that and does that some more, both with her patient and with her husband. Neither one of them is giving her much of a break. There’s also the patient’s manuscript, about a little-known incident in World War II, interspersed between the chapters of Deb’s narration. Deb is our protagonist and heroine and her voice (measured, rational, self-critical) dominates the book. Deb comes across as so real I found myself wanting to take her to task for her constant self-criticism and lack of self-care during a very difficult time. So it could be hard reading the manuscript sections, written at a remove and much weaker. I found myself bored with most of these sections, but by the end I found myself won over and acknowledging that they did add something to the book. By the end, I also found myself pretty close to tears. This is a profoundly moving book, and I think it would be so no matter what your profession is.
It wasn’t a perfect book (I’m saying that a lot lately, aren’t I? What do we think are the odds of me actually reading a perfect book this year?). For me much of the weakness was Michael. He gave Deb so little to work with, which was fine, but where the author dropped the ball was on giving us a reason for Deb to want to stick through everything Michael puts her through (spoiler alert: it’s a lot). There were gestures towards this as Deb thought back to what made Michael lovable and their marriage good, but almost every memory she came up with for us was about how good the sex used to be. And good sex is important to marriage, I’m not arguing that, but, well, let’s go with “necessary but not sufficient” on that one.
Still, overall a very good book, moving and powerful.
Recommended pairing: I feel like Deb could have used a strong drink at the end of her days with Barclay and Michael. You know what’s a really good strong drink? BenRiach, if you’ve got the budget for it. One of the best Scotches I’ve tried this year.