Reading guide for The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway

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The Bird Skinner

by Alice Greenway

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway X
The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  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 posttraumatic 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?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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