It's hard to believe now that women once wore dead birds on their hats. Even more gruesome, were hats sporting parts of birds. The story of The Plume Hunter is set against the backdrop of this practice, which sadly consumed much of the water bird population, as well as other species, on both coasts of the United States in the waning years of the 19th century. Contemplating huge profits, hunters who normally shot birds for the restaurant trade began to focus on the demand for the glorious plumes of egrets, herons, grebes, and more. Thus, the occupation of plume hunter was born, and the millinery business flourished.
Renee Thompson's novel, The Plume Hunter, is based upon true events and includes a cameo appearance by Frank Chapman, founder of the National Audubon Society. Perhaps it was the conservation movement along with the arrival of a new century that brought concerned women together in protest to end the slaughter and bring this fashion craze to an end.
While there are a number of significant characters in The Plume Hunter, Fin McFaddin is center stage as a young bird hunter working in sections of Oregon known as Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, and Malheur—stopover areas for migratory birds. At age nineteen, Fin is able to earn enough to help his widowed mother living in Portland. In order to learn how to prepare birds for sale, Fin falls in with a ruthless plume hunter, LeGrande, and the man's nephew, Axel. Fin is torn between his thrill of the hunt and the melancholy that sometimes overcomes him after shooting birds, "The feeling took him aback, and he quickly brushed it aside, for lonely or not, he'd ponder no notion of going home to Portland."
Witnessing LeGrande's brutality, Fin decides to quit the man for good and hit the trail alone. Arriving near Malheur, Fin comes upon a massacre, "Hundreds of birds lay dead at their nests, their wings and skins hacked off...Frowsy-headed youngsters, wobbly and naked, clattered to be fed...Fin's gaze locked on the carnage...nothing but suffering surrounded him now, making him wonder who and what he was."
Not long after this episode, Fin stumbles upon his boyhood friend, Aiden. Camped in grassland, Aiden and his fiancÚ, Phoebe, have been searching for Fin. Aiden brings news that Fin's boyhood home—his mother's house in Portland—burned to the ground, along with the money Fin had sent her over the years. There is much more to Fin's story: What happened to Fin after parting from Aiden and Phoebe? Will Fin marry Phoebe, or will he marry his childhood friend, Maggie? An ardent conservationist, does Aiden enter politics? What will Fin do after Congress passes the Lacey Act, the first federal law protecting wildlife?
Don't be surprised if The Plume Hunter morphs into a Hollywood script. The beautiful setting alone is thrilling. The historic aspects of women's fashion, preservation of wildlife, and the rise of law enforcement to protect those creatures unable to defend themselves make it richer. Whether you love birds or not, author Renee Thompson's book is an engrossing, bittersweet novel.
Renee Thompson is the author of The Bridge at Valentine, which received high praise from Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry. She writes about wildlife, her love of birds, and the people who inhabit the American West. Visit her website.
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