Jean’s Pick of the Week: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

I am a firm believer that pets enrich our lives by providing comfort, companionship, purpose, and a whole host of other intangible, but still very real, benefits. If you are lucky enough to be on the receiving end of an animal’s love, then you don’t need me to tell you what’s what because you already know. That being said, there are certain animals that, personally, I have no desire to share my home with: snakes, mice, lizards, and, also, birds. So the fact that Charlie Gilmour’s autobiography, Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie, makes his unexpected foray into bird fatherhood sound ridiculously charming, even to me, is quite a feat. 

Author Charlie Gilmour and Benzene

Charlie’s journey into featherhood begins when his partner Yana finds a baby magpie too young to survive on its own. According to Charlie, all of his past attempts at caring for animals seemed to facilitate their early demise so, fearing that history will repeat itself, he wants no responsibility in the bird’s care. When Yana is called away for work, Charlie is reluctantly thrust into the role of round-the-clock caretaker. This involves waking every 20 minutes to shrieking bird calls, crushing the heads of live grubs to shove down the bird’s gullet, worrying over the bird’s frequent seizures, and questioning whether he is cut out to raise another living creature when he hasn’t even figured out his own life. When it becomes apparent that the bird will survive, they give him the unusual moniker Benzene for the shimmering color of his feathers.

As you can imagine, life with a bird is not all smooth sailing. Charlie discovers that certain things, like flying, do not come naturally to magpies. Once Benzene has mastered the skill though, nothing, and no one, is safe from his sneak attacks; other skills, however, come instinctually. For example, did you know that magpies like to hide their food? Living with a semi-domesticated bird like Benzene, this means finding raw meat in between the pages of books, folds of clothing, usb drives, or, best of all, your hair. It all sounds terrible on the surface yet Gilmour deftly conveys the exasperation, humor, and love we feel for our babies- feathery, furry, or human- despite the chaos they bring into our lives.

His life seems more akin to that of a medieval prince than to that of a bird, filled as it is with music, flowers, shiny baubles, and meat.”

Charlie Gilmour describing life with Benzene in Featherhood

Benzene’s appearance also happens to come at a critical juncture in Charlie’s life. He is about to get married and Yana is eager to start a family, but Charlie’s feelings about fatherhood are conflicted because of his relationship with his biological father, the British poet Heathcote Williams. To even say Charlie had a relationship with Heathcote during his childhood would be a mischaracterization as Charlie only saw him a handful of times, each very briefly, with years stretching between the meetings. As a result, he grew up questioning his self-worth and wondering if there was something that made him so fundamentally unlovable that his biological father wanted nothing to do with him. While caring for Benzene, Charlie learns from his mother that, as a young man, Heathcote raised a jackdaw, a cousin to the magpie, and wrote a poem about it. Through this shared experience, Charlie feels a connection with Heathcote and reignites a relationship with him.

Even as an adult, Charlie has a hard time deciphering Heathcote’s behavior and cryptic messages. His sudden disappearances and long stretches of silence trigger the same feelings of inadequacy that he felt as a child. Charlie reveals that those unresolved feelings manifest themselves into a dark period in which he acted out, abused drugs, and made stupid decisions, one of which resulted in a stint in prison. Charlie realizes that his path in early adulthood mirrored that of Heathcote’s in many ways, and his greatest fear is that, despite his best intentions, he will continue to follow in Heathcote’s footsteps and one day abandon his children.

The answer seems obvious to us as readers, even if, at first, it is not to Charlie. The choices he makes when Benzene enters his life set Charlie down a path that diverges from that of his father’s. Charlie’s destiny is not written in his DNA, but in the lines of the memoir he has written. It is in the hard work of staying and loving in spite of the pain. It is in knowing when to protect and when to let go. It is revealed in Charlie’s glorious stories of featherhood and fatherhood in all of their wonder. 

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