And the Birds Rained Down – Jocelyne Saucier

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“He explained that the box contained a medication of last resort. ‘There is no doctor or hospital here,’ he said, ‘and there are limits to what a person can endure.’ A flash of panic passed through Marie-Desneige’s eyes. ‘Nobody here wants to die,’ he hastened to add, ‘but nobody wants a life that is no longer his own either…. And that,’ he said, pointing to the tinplate box, ‘is what makes the sunset worthwhile when our bones our aching, that’s what gives us the desire to live, because we know we have a choice.  The freedom to live or to die, there’s nothing like it to make you choose life.”

My initial reaction to this book as I progressed through it: holy shit this is good.

All throughout this read, I thought of the following song.  You can listen to it while you continue to read my review.

And the Birds Rained Down follows the story of three people in their eighties, who have chosen a life in the Northern Ontario woods over typical end-of-life care – a seniors’ home, to an extended care home, to palliative hospital care.  A life in the woods, and a death with dignity, not confined to a hospital bed.

This isn’t the type of book I usually read.  It’s a rumination on death and how we approach death, and also what it means to be a senior citizen (or one with mental illness) and to be looked at with a certain stigma.  Tom and Charlie choose a life in the woods, and keep a death pact to each other – if one of them no longer is able to live life as he pleases, he will end his life with a drug they keep in a little tin on the mantle.

We’re only getting better at distracting ourselves from death.  By hiding seniors away in homes, eliminating their self-determination and failing to recognize that there is a life behind those deep-set wrinkles, we are, in a way, hiding ourselves from death.  To be in the presence of one who has survived more generations than they have left, is to, essentially, stare death in the face.  So these characters escape that judgement and live a life in the woods, with help from a couple of younger pot farmers who bring them anything they can’t eke out themselves.   A third character, Marie-Desneige, then enters Tom and Charlie’s tranquil escape.  Recently escaped from a mental institution, she had her whole life stolen from her, and is now seizing the opportunity to make the most of what little time she has left.

The book is heartbreaking, as you might expect (I cried anyway), but also inspires thought in the way we approach death and those who are older.  This was also a selection for Canada Reads this year (when Ru won), and was defended by Martha Wainwright (which was what originally brought me to want to read it).  I see how it could be a book that breaks down barriers – that is, the barriers of the fear of death, and the stigmas and travesties invoked upon the old.  I enjoyed it better than Ru – in fact, I probably have enjoyed this book the most so far this Bookstravaganza.  And you definitely don’t have to be old or approaching death for it to resonate with you (in a way, we are all approaching death).

Books read: 10

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