Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Bird Skinner

by Alice Greenway

“[A] thrilling evocation of young love . . . as fresh as it is heartbreaking. With an attention to detail that’s both poetic and precise . . . The Bird Skinner knows we are animals, all of us.” —New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date November 18, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2105-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction, Alice Greenway’s second novel is a lush and evocative story of war, love, aging, and birds.

Slowing down from a hard-lived life and a recent leg amputation, ornithologist Jim Kennoway retreats to an island in Maine: to drink, smoke, and be left alone. There, he thinks back to his youth, working for Naval Intelligence during World War II in the Solomon Islands. While spying on Japanese shipping from behind enemy lines, Jim befriended Tosca, a young islander who worked with him as a scout. Now, thirty years later, Tosca has sent his daughter Cadillac to stay with Jim in the weeks before she begins premedical studies at Yale. She arrives to Jim’s consternation—yet she will capture his heart and that of everyone she meets, irrevocably changing their lives.

Tags Literary


“Greenway’s limpid, poetic prose; her richly nuanced portrait of a nicely varied cast of characters on both Fox and Manhattan islands; and her evocative depiction of natural landscapes . . . [is] sensitive and finely written.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Bracing . . . Greenway’s thrilling evocation of young love . . . is as fresh as it is heartbreaking. With an attention to detail that’s both poetic and precise . . . The Bird Skinner knows we are animals, all of us. The natural world is everywhere—and despite undeniable beauty, it’s rarely pretty.” —Joanna Hershon, New York Times Book Review

“Sensitively written and gently understanding of human frailty. . . . Greenway’s rapturous prose and warm empathy assert that there is beauty to be found in even the unhappiest lives.” —Washington Post

“A fascinating novel with the peculiar combination of ornithology and World War II in the South Pacific, birds and death, and the survivors who not so much survive as endure. This is a rich stew pervaded by fine story telling.” —Jim Harrison, author of The River Swimmer

“Atmospheric and engrossing.” —People

“In lush, expressive prose . . . The Bird Skinner is capacious . . . this is a novel that soars.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Evocative . . . image-rich . . . The distinctive environments of disparate islands, interwoven with alternately romantic and horrific flashbacks, create a beautiful, ultimately painful story as haunting as its settings. Gifted at evoking places in the past, Greenway is at her most poignant in moments when outsiders and natives, from hot climates and cold, come face to face, attempting to connect across geographic, cultural, emotional, and psychological divides.” —Publishers Weekly

“A fascinating novel . . . the reader will have a hard time putting this book down.” —Christian Science Monitor

“It’s not every day you come across a novel that connects a Maine island with one of the Solomon Islands . . . in a love story that weaves together World War II, ornithology, Robert Louis Stevenson, regret, and ultimately, love.” —National Geographic Traveler

“Spirited and moving . . . Greenway has a marvelous sense of place and history. Her evocation of the war in the Solomons, and her description of the island in Maine, are pitch-perfect.” —Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

“Greenway creates intensely believable characters who come from other places and other times. The Solomon Islands become characters as rich and three-dimensional as any other. She captures so well the unsleeping tragedies of the past, and how these bear in upon the present.” —Helen Dunmore, author of The Siege

“A romance, a compelling story, an illumination of what birdwatching is all about, The Bird Skinner has all the earmarks of a natural history classic.” —Marie Winn, author of Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife


An Indie Next Pick for January 2014


The coffee’s strong and hot. The sun, coming in the window, is hot on his face and bare arms and chest. It works its way like fingers through the khaki trouser, massaging the cramped muscles of the stump. Cadillac sits at the end of the bed. He likes her there.

He remembers the pilots, how they all took off their shirts. Lean, brown, muscular, clean. Not sick and dirty yet, like when they went ashore. Not shell-shocked or bandaged or mutilated, or dismembered.

“I was in Hawaii,” he tells her, hoping he might make some sense if he goes back to the beginning, to Pearl Harbor. “I was looking for honeycreepers, at their tongues.” He’d been with working with Bryan, a curator at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, examining how the tongues of different species evolved to adapt to the different flora of particular islands.

“At home, our sunbirds have long tongues like straws, to help them suck nectar from orchids and hibiscus flowers. Some have little brushes on the ends of their tongues.”

Did she really say that, or is he just imagining it?

Reading Group Guide

1. The anchor of The Bird Skinner is the title figure, Jim. What makes this misanthropic man an endearing character? Why do the other characters care about him?

2. Why is Jim so resistant to Cadillac’s arrival? What are his excuses? Are they understandable?

3. Discuss how Jim has set himself apart throughout his life. In what ways has he always been an outcast and recluse, from childhood through old age?

4. With what curse does Jim’s grandfather haunt him? How does this curse manifest in Jim’s relationship with Fergus?

5. Despite Jim’s flaws as a father, Fergus cares for and looks after him. Talk about how their roles as father and son change throughout the story.

6. Discuss Jim’s identification with Long John Silver in Treasure Island. How does his obsession with Old Providence reflect his self-image as a gruff, one-legged pirate?

7. What do Jim’s memories reveal about Helen? How does her death relate to his memories of war, and to his post-traumatic stress? Helen’s story is revealed late in the book. Why might this be the case, and is it effective?

8. Is the end inevitable? Do the demise of Helen and Jim’s thoughts about Papa Hemingway foreshadow the conclusion?

9. After the sailing catastrophe, when Jim falls ill, he is sent to Cumberland Island to recover. As an old man, “He sees now how his life followed a distinct trajectory, veering ever south from the islands of the Penobscot, down to Georgia, out into the Caribbean, across to Indochina, finally landing him on the shores of the equatorial Pacific” (p. 213). What has island life offered Jim? How did it lead him to and enable his work? Did the island of Manhattan offer similar opportunities?

10. In the Solomon Islands, the field hospital surgeon is overwhelmed by a new epidemic: “‘Some fifty to a hundred mental cases a day.’ Panic, fear, and collapse had swept through the troops as virulently as malaria or dysentery . . . ‘War neurosis is the current diagnosis’” (p. 186–87). Is “neurosis” an understandable response to war?

11. Consider the following passage: “Normalized abnormality is how Dr. Harding diagnoses Jim . . . Actions that seem abhorrent and even criminal to those still living a civilized life become the norm in war . . . a certain callousness or savagery is . . . what a man needs to survive here” (p. 189). Does this justify Jim’s behavior toward the dead Japanese soldiers? What light does the Solomon Island tradition of headhunting throw on his actions?

12. Discuss the ways that Cadillac provides Fergus with the warmth and support that he lacked from his father. What are the similarities between his memories of his mother and his experiences with Cadillac?

13. How does Cadillac’s upbringing in the Solomon Islands influence her ambition, her confidence, and her good temperament? In what ways did her childhood lead her to medical studies?

14. Jim was an enigma to his colleagues at the museum. What do Michael and Laina learn about him through Michael’s assignment?

15. Greenway’s keen eye and knack for description evokes a plenitude of vivid sceneries. What are some of the most memorable scenes and images?

Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez; Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust; Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway; Frankie’s Place by Jim Sterba; Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal; Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton; Amaretto by Joe Upton; Evening by Susan Minot; Death in Venice by Thomas Mann; The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich; A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble; Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis; Into the Valley by John Hersey; A World of Watchers by Joseph Kastner