Book Review: The Hummingbird

Synopsis from Goodreads: Deborah Birch is a seasoned hospice nurse whose daily work requires courage and compassion. But her skills and experience are tested in new and dramatic ways when her easygoing husband, Michael, returns from his third deployment to Iraq haunted by nightmares, anxiety, and rage. She is determined to help him heal, and to restore the tender, loving marriage they once had.

At the same time, Deborahs primary patient is Barclay Reed, a retired history professor and expert in the Pacific Theater of World War II whose career ended in academic scandal. Alone in the world, the embittered professor is dying. As Barclay begrudgingly comes to trust Deborah, he tells her stories from that long-ago war, which help her find a way to help her husband battle his demons. Told with piercing empathy and heartbreaking realism, The Hummingbird is a masterful story of loving commitment, service to country, and absolution through wisdom and forgiveness. 

The Hummingbird, by Stephen Kiernan is book 5/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge. I would categorize it as a blend of fiction and historical fiction due to the way the story is told.

The Hummingbird contains three intertwined story lines. The first follows Deborah, a dedicated hospice nurse, who has a new (and difficult) patient, Barclay Reed, a retired professor and expert on WWII history in the Pacific Northwest. Deborah’s story also revolves around her homelife and her husband, Michael, a veteran of multiple Iraqi deployments, where he was trained as a sniper. Michael’s re-entry into the world, his job, and their marriage is rocky and difficult, and his story of the horrors of war he lived through emerge as the book unfolds. The final story line follows a Japanese pilot who ran two bombing raids along the PNW coastline with incindiary bombs. (This is actually a true story. The author found a news clipping about this Japanese pilot and researched it. He has, however, expanded the story further as part of the fiction of this book.) The professor has written a book about this pilot and the Japanese attacks on the PNW coastline during the war, a book which cost him his professional standing at the local university. Deborah comes to understand Barclay, even as his cancer continues its attack on his health, and Barclay begins to respect her, using sections of his unpublished book to help her better understand her husband and his PTSD.

First off, I think the Kindle synopsis of this book is a bit misleading. This was not a sort of historical mystery where there’s something to be uncovered – other than Deborah’s figuring out how to best help her husband. It was billed as such, so it took me about a third of the book to understand that is not really what the book is about. It’s really an examination of end-of-life issues and veteran trauma issues. (Which makes sense, I suppose, as the author has written several books on hospice and end-of-life issues, and is a healthcare advocate in the state of Vermont.)

This book was not really my cup of tea. I felt like the historical detail chapters about the Japanese pilot were really dry. I wound up skimming those mostly. I also felt like there were WAY too many patient stories from Deborah’s hospice career added in. I understand they were supposed to show that she had seen the best and worst of many hospice cases, and learned something from each patient. I think I would have understood that with 2 examples, maybe 3, but not the multiple many ones throughout the story. I had a hard time engaging with ANY of the characters in this book, and perhaps if I had been able to do that, I would have enjoyed this one more. Plenty of readers/reviewers who loved this and felt it was an uplifting book – it just fell really flat for me.

3/5 stars – mostly for the original story of the PNW involvement in WWII hook that I didn’t know about.

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