January 2018 Penguin the Magpie
blog by Cindy Bushey
One of the great things about being in a book club is the exposure readers have to varied genres. When the monthly selection is a book you never would have chosen for yourself, there is always the possibility of broadening your horizons, increasing your knowledge base, and finding you enjoy a totally different style of writing. Or not. For an innocuous little memoir, our January selection, Penguin the Magpie: The Odd Little Bird That Saved a Family, roused very strong opinions, many of them differing wildly. Who would have thought that the story of a family working their way through life-altering trauma could be interpreted by readers in such vastly dissimilar ways?
Author Cameron Bloom, with help from Bradley Trevor Grieve, introduced Zion’s readers to his family: his wife, Samantha, and his three sons. He briefly tells how he and Sam grew up, met and courted in their native Australia, how they indulged their wanderlust by visiting countries around the world including many in Asia, how they welcomed their children into the world and began to expose them to other cultures through travel, how excited the family was to go to Thailand and make their way off the beaten path to towns not typically on the tourist list. Until Sam leaned against a balcony railing that was dry-rotted, fell, and nearly died from her injuries, surviving finally but paralyzed from the chest down. Cam was a photographer and Sam was a nurse, but nothing prepares you for paralysis and how to cope personally or as a family. Depression was weakening Sam’s desire to live when into their lives came a wounded magpie picked up by one of the boys.
Nursing the bird back to health gave the family a different focus, and Penguin responded to their love. She became a comforter and confidant of Sam’s while she dealt with her new reality. The family credits her with truly saving them and enabling them to work their way to a new normal. They tell this story not just through text but also through pictures taken by Cam that illustrate how integrated into their family Penguin became. At the end of the book, Sam talks candidly about her feelings since the accident. All in all, one would think this is an inspiring story; there are plans for a movie in the near future.
However, if you are not fond of birds (or have a phobia about them), this book may not appeal to you. Penguin features prominently in all the pictures, and the idea of her cuddling in bed with a family member, sitting on someone’s head, poking her bill into your face, or just flying freely in and out of the house (with the attendant “calling cards” left behind) left some of our readers cold. Cam’s and Sam’s free spirits and openness to exploration and experimentation had at least one of our readers feeling they were a throwback to the hippies of the 1960’s. Others of us admired their laid-back approach to life and thought some of the pictures hilarious, poignant, or tear-inspiring by turns.
One of the interesting things about this memoir is the two perspectives readers are given. Not only did we hear from Cameron as the caretaker but also from Sam as the care receiver. While Cam tended to focus on the positive and downplay the bad times, Sam was very open about her difficulties. It gave us an appreciation for both the difficulties and the achievements, the pain and the satisfaction of attaining small goals. The realization that we are more than our pasts resonated with our readers. The past is a part of you but not the only part. You are tied to it only as much as you let yourself be. This is a powerful story of overcoming obstacles and the triumph of the human spirit and animal spirit. The gregarious Penguin also overcomes and grows. But in that statement lies one of the objections voiced by various readers who felt that the author anthropomorphized the bird, crediting it with human emotions. To those readers, the story line did not ring true. They felt the pictures were staged and the story line was contrived. Readers who easily see emotion expressed across species felt the animal-human bond promoted and escalated healing not only for Sam but for the rest of the family and the bird.
The author’s repeated attempts to accentuate the positive annoyed some readers who wished the book had been devoted more to Sam’s words and less pictures. They found it hard to connect to these people who adapted and rose above their problems. One reader said she actually talked back to the book at one point saying, “I get it. You’re great! My problems aren’t as bad as yours, and I would probably feel sorry for myself in your situation. So I’m really not interested in your situation.” Others felt an empathetic bond that went beyond words along with a hope that they would respond as well should they be faced with such a trauma.
While one reader felt the whole book was a planned photo-shoot and a crass attempt to make money (part of the profits go to the Reeve Foundation dedicated to spinal cord injuries and founded by Christopher and Dana Reeve), others felt the reality of Sam’s new normal touched them deeply. To know that a paralyzed person in a wheelchair is in constant physical pain and never comfortable hits hard. To know that Sam will never ever feel sand between her toes again (for spinal nerves do not regenerate), and that this is only one of numerous limitations to which she has to adjust will surely come back to us the next time we are at the beach.
Truly our diverse opinions about this book speak to this question: What do we look for in a memoir? Are we looking for stories of courage, are we looking for voyages of discovery, are we asking to be inspired, frightened, intrigued, educated, awed, or for confirmation of our own beliefs? Whatever we are seeking, we need to be able to relate to the author and characters. If that relationship does not exist, the book will disappoint. Some of our readers were disappointed. Others were enchanted. We encourage our blog readers to find out for themselves – this book is a quick read so if you have a couple hours, meet Cam, Sam, the boys, and Penguin and see how their story touches you.
Two of our readers gave it two thumbs up; two readers rated it one thumb up, 5 were neutral, two gave it a knuckle down, one ranked it one thumb down, and one gave it two thumbs down. Zion’s readers continue their exposure to memoirs with the February selection Now Everyone Will Know. If you enjoy reading, please consider joining us for our discussion on February 13th.