Sometimes people are simply meant to find one another. Often it is in the romantic sense, but sometimes it is out of a need to survive in a difficult time and place in one’s life. In Alice Greenway’s award winning novel, “The Bird Skinner”, two people are brought together, neither realizing the impact they will have on each other’s lives. Her second novel has its roots in her relationship with her grandfather, a noted ornithologist who served with Naval Intelligence during the Pacific War.
Published in 2014, it received the 2015 New England Society Book Award for fiction, recognizing this work as a book of merit that celebrates New England and its culture.
The novel, well crafted and lyrical in prose and place, is the story of two people from opposite sides of the world, one young, the other old. They inhabit their own island worlds from different oceans, but are soon brought together in one place. This story is, in essence, about islands, those very much real and located on maps, and others that reside in the imagination and childhood dreams and travels.
Jim Galloway, an ornithologist recently retired from a lifetime of collecting specimens for the Museum of Natural History and a war veteran of the Pacific, lives on an island in Maine. Here he recuperates from a recent leg amputation. He does this through drink and an irrepressible temper that provides gossip for the local citizenry. He spends his days thinking about the past, his deceased wife, and his time since boyhood, collecting bird specimens and doing his duty during the war.
Having volunteered as a coast watcher, an observer for enemy movement in the Solomon Islands during the Pacific War, he is quickly befriended by one of the locals. His “Friday”, as it turns out, is Tosca, who quickly shows Jim the ways of the island and assists him in his mission. In return, Jim teaches him the art of collecting and skinning to preserve bird species, all while on duty watching and waiting for signs of enemy movement. When the enemy does move, Jim and Tosca make a decision that ultimately will haunt them both.
Now after many years, alone on an island in Maine, Jim tries to forget and be happy, which unfortunately involves the bottle. But then he receives word that Tosca’s 22 year-old daughter, Cadillac, will visit him. A young Melanesian woman from the Solomon Islands, Cadillac is a college bound student sent to spend a month on the island with Jim while awaiting the start of her first semester at Yale. She hopes to become a doctor. Neither one knows why she has been sent. She quickly makes this island her home, appearing impervious to Jim’s drinking and temper outbursts. Throughout this summer month, we witness their battle to connect. Cadillac constantly pushes the relationship envelope while Jim buries his head in drink and books, trying to locate the real-life location of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Together, they slowly find a way to help one another by remembering the past, and dealing with its ripples that appear in the waters around their island.
The novel is often blunt, sometimes hard and cruel. For a brief moment it is lightened by the friendship between Cadillac and Jim’s son, Fergus. There are glimpses of kindness and the recognition by a father of a son’s beauty and mild disposition. This is the moment which leads to the ultimate realization that even within the unhappiest of people, there live moments and memories which can reveal a real beauty, if only given the chance, the time and the right person in one’s life.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014, Hardcover, $25.