the bird in me flies…a stunning portrait of an artist

The Bird in Me Flies, written and illustrated by Sara Lundberg, translated by B.J. Epstein
first published in Sweden in 2017; English edition 2020 by Groundwood Books
120 pages

This ravishingly beautiful, fictionalized biography of Swedish artist Berta Hansson has been one of my favorite reading experiences of late. Told with spare, tenderhearted prose that plumbs the deep soul of a child impacted by sorrow, ill-fitted to traditional expectations, stirred by artistic impulses, and lavishly-illustrated in rich, evocative paintings that saturate the pages with emotion, with the textures and passions of Berta’s heart, the entire package immerses us in Berta’s worlds — inner and outer.

Berta grew up in a small, rural Swedish community in the 1920s, the youngest of the three Hansson girls, with a baby brother behind her. The outlines of her expected life were set for her from birth — learn to run a household, get married, and fold herself neatly into the routines of a Swedish farm wife. But Berta did not fit that mold. Instead she had unquenchable artistic yearnings, a way of seeing the world around her, of shaping clay, sketching lines, portraying the nature and people in her sphere that scrabbled out of tidy boxes and hidebound perspectives.

Berta’s mother seemed to understand her divergent daughter, to appreciate her artistic instincts, but she was very ill with tuberculosis, unable even to leave her bed much of the time, and died in Berta’s late childhood. Her father had no patience for Berta’s nonsense, nor did her teacher, who reprimanded Berta for her novel expressions. Berta was thus a misunderstood, heartsick child, with a profound desire to translate the world through art.

She is saved by two things. One, her fierce resistance to the expectations her father places on her. Her inner rage erupts one day in an incident involving a pot of burned pea soup, a moment of her will clashing so completely with her father’s that it is as though a spell is broken, the reality of Berta’s incompatibility with her father’s intentions so plain as to shatter forever that mirage. The second is the influence of the family doctor, an art aficionado, who encourages Berta’s father to allow her to pursue further education.

Berta’s pathway to artistry was one strewn with tragedy, turmoil, loneliness, and the challenges of womanhood in her world and era and particular family. Her self-awareness and irrepressible soul wove beauty from those painful ingredients, and Sara Lundberg captures all of that in this stunning biography. Every page is soaked with a sense of both poignant melancholy and gracious beauty.  The experience of reading it was so all-encompassing that I looked up after reading it and wondered if I’d breathed the entire time. Highly recommended for anyone with an artistic bent. Great choice for a Women’s History Month read. I’d suggest ages 11 through adult.