The Bird Skinner

Written by Alice Greenway
Review by Helen Williams

For years, Jim Kennoway has lived in two worlds: a noted collector and curator of bird collections for New York’s Museum of Natural History, he’s also been quietly, angrily, re-living and regretting his time in the Pacific during World War II and its aftermath upon his return. Many WWII veterans share Jim’s taciturn attitude, as war, and the horrors one sees or enacts during it, wasn’t something you talked about or acknowledged.

In the summer of 1973, when we meet Jim, we’re still decades away from defining post-traumatic stress disorder, though we may hear the phrase “shell-shocked” on occasion. Indeed, Jim has recently been shocked again, when his intemperate drinking and smoking causes him to lose one of his legs. Debilitated, unable to travel to collect and skin birds, and never much of a public-facing persona at the Museum, Jim is forced to retire. He retreats to the family summer home on Fox Island, in Maine.

Having rebuffed his son, Jim’s solo sojourn towards the abyss is interrupted by the arrival of Cadillac, the daughter of a Solomon Islander he worked with in Naval Intelligence. Cadillac is on her way to study medicine at Yale, and her bright curiosity and naiveté force Jim to re-engage with the world, at least temporarily. Through this, the reader slowly learns the causes of his anger and sadness, while Jim discovers his positive influence on a man he barely knew. Chapters alternate between the 1943 and 1973 timelines, with the colorful Cadillac as the bridge between past and present.

Greenway’s treatment of difficult issues is thoughtful and realistic, and her descriptions of island life—Solomon or Fox—bring vivid animation to an otherwise dark journey. Small drawings of birds, and the discussions about them, adds depth to the pages of this sensitive tale.