Renée Thompson writes about her love of birds, wildlife, and the people who inhabit the American West. Her first novel, The Bridge at Valentine, received high praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove.--but more importantly, at least to me, she's also warm, funny, and a wonderful friend. Her second novel, The Plume Hunter, about conflict, friendly, love and plume hunting (killing birds to sell the feathers for hats) is due from Torrey House Press on December 1. I'm honored to host her here.
Renée, I’m intrigued. I’ve heard of plume hunters – which I thought existed only in Florida. Yet your book is set in Oregon?
I know, Caroline – it’s a surprise, right? Most readers assume that birds were killed strictly in Florida, but plume hunters also shot birds in other regions of the country, including the marshes of Klamath and Malheur, in Oregon, where my novel is set (Portland also plays a small role).
What kinds of birds did they shoot?
Great egrets (hunters were attracted to the “bridal plumes” on the birds’ backs during breeding season), snowy egrets, western grebes, pelicans, terns, owls, and all sorts of songbirds and shorebirds. In the winter, market hunters in Oregon and California also shot thousands of ducks for the restaurant trade in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.
What inspired you to write a novel about plume hunting?
I was intrigued by a photograph of William Finley and Herman Bohlman, who, in the late 1800s were oölogists (egg collectors) in Portland, Oregon, but who turned to photography when egg collecting became unpopular with bird lovers. About the same time, I saw a historical photo of market hunters with their kill, and something just clicked. I did some research, and learned that in 1885 more than five million birds were killed in the United States alone for the millinery trade. When I read that feathers sold for $32 an ounce – which in 1903 made plumes worth about twice their weight in gold – I knew I would craft a story about a plume hunter and his best friend – someone stalwartly opposed to pluming – and that their differing philosophies would provide conflict, and help propel the plot.
Can you tell us more?
I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that at its core, Plume is about two best friends who are torn apart by their differences; Fin is Plume’s dark hero, and Aiden Elliott is his best friend, a man who considers himself the birds’ savior. I’ll also mention that it was an interesting paradox that men who collected eggs and bird skins in the name of science – often for museums – didn’t see themselves as contributing to the demise of birds, since they weren’t “real” killers, but men furthering the understanding of our avian world. To that end, I’ve also incorporated a fictionalized version of Frank M. Chapman, who, in real life, was the curator of birds for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Chapman was instrumental in the re-formation of the Audubon Society after its failed first start, so I’ve cast him as Aiden’s mentor.
Where does that leave Fin?
That’s actually a pretty important question. Fin loves to hunt – it’s in his blood and bones. Still, he struggles to understand if it’s hunting that fuels his soul, or the actual killing. I think this is a question some hunters ask even today, and so I’ve explored it in Plume, allowing readers to decide for themselves the moral implications.
Speaking of moral implications – am I giving away too much by saying Fin and Aiden fall in love with the same woman?
Not at all – we just won’t let on who gets the girl, or what it costs the “winner”!
Great review! I really enjoyed Renee Thompson's first novel and look forward to The Plume Hunters too. I had no idea that so many birds were killed for the millinery trade. I'm an avid birder but my husband hunts chukar. Often, I think it would be great if there was catch and release bird hunting like catch and release fishing.
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