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Featherhood

A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie

“I loved every single page.” —Elton John

“The best piece of nature writing since H is for Hawk.” —Neil Gaiman

​In this moving, critically acclaimed memoir, a young man saves a baby magpie as his estranged father is dying, only to find that caring for the mischievous bird saves him.

One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s hands. Magpies, he soon discovers, are as clever and mischievous as monkeys. They are also notorious thieves, and this one quickly steals his heart. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.

While caring for Benzene, Charlie learns his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old, is ill. As he grapples with Heathcote’s abandonment, Charlie comes across one of his poems, in which Heathcote describes how an impish young jackdaw fell from its nest and captured his affection. Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past—and embrace the role of father himself.

A bird falls, a father dies, a child is born. Featherhood is the unforgettable story of a love affair between a man and a bird. It is also a beautiful and affecting memoir about childhood and parenthood, captivity and freedom, grief and love.

This reading group guide for Featherhood includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s life. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.

While caring for Benzene, Charlie comes across a poem about a jackdaw, written by his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old. The poem about the jackdaw sets Charlie on a course of grappling with Heathcote’s abandonment, uncovering who his father is as he contemplates becoming a father himself.

Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past. Complete with nest building, flying lessons, and moments of unexpected joy, Featherhood is the unforgettable story of a love affair between a man and a bird. It is also a profound and moving memoir about a man who learns from a bird about growing into himself.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In the Prologue, Charlie describes a magpie tumbling to the ground in a junkyard. How does this introduction shape our understanding of the story to follow? What would be different without it?

2. What is Charlie’s first impression of the magpie? How do the myths surrounding magpies influence his—and our—feelings about this creature?

3. Charlie writes of him and his girlfriend: “If Yana represents order, then I am chaos.” How does this dynamic develop over the course of the book? What other couples in books, film, or television might fit that description?

4. How do we learn about Charlie’s origin story? In what ways is it similar to or different from Benzene’s?

5. Charlie says early on: “No point getting attached to something that isn’t going to stick around.” Why doesn’t he follow his own advice? In Chapter 4, how do Charlie and Benzene start bonding?

6. Charlie’s stepfather decides to adopt him in Chapter 8. How does the young Charlie negotiate this transition? What are his feelings about changing his name? Why does he call it his first betrayal?

7. On page 71, Charlie writes: “To my childish mind, Heathcote seemed like an ideal father: a Fagin-like figure who would teach you to steal handkerchiefs and let you drink gin. A man who willfully broke the rules; who could levitate and eat fire.” What are examples from Heathcote’s life that live up to that comparison? How might those qualities in a father figure be challenging for a young child?

8. Why does caring for Benzene allow Charlie to reach out and try again with his father? What happened previously when he attempted to connect with him?

9. On page 100, Charlie reflects on Yana asking him about how he feels about having kids. He asks himself a series of questions. Discuss what he means when he says, “What if I repeat Heathcote’s mistakes? What if I repeat my own?” What are his thoughts about nature vs. nurture?

10. On page 106, Charlie reads Heathcote’s writings about the moment when his Jack Daw left him. How does this change Charlie’s feelings toward Heathcote? What does it reveal about Charlie’s relationship with Benzene?

11. In Chapter 24, Charlie interacts with his sisters, China and Lily, for the first time. Based on their comments, what was it actually like to have Heathcote for a father, and how does that differ from what Charlie has imagined?

12. In Chapter 25, Benzene decides to build a nest on top of Charlie’s parents’ fridge. What do you learn about how a magpie nests? How does it mirror Charlie and Yana’s making a home together?

13. Throughout the book, note how Charlie specifically adapts to living with Benzene. How does he learn to listen to Benzene, and how does Benzene make his feelings known?

14. In Chapter 36, Charlie goes through Heathcote’s belongings and finds a small image of his mother “juggling in a field, silver balls suspended mid-flight and a grin frozen on her face” (page 229). What was her life like with Heathcote, and how does the fairy tale of how they met and first lived together differ from the reality of what it was?

15. What happens when Charlie tries to set Benzene free the first time? What about later in the story? How do the emotional and physical stakes change over time?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read H Is for Hawk, another book about the healing relationship between a grieving human and a bird. How is Helen’s relationship with her goshawk Mabel similar to Charlie’s with Benzene? How is it different?

2. Read Oliver Twist. Compare the character of Fagin to Charlie’s portrait of his father. How do they compare? How are they different? Who’s more like Oliver himself—Charlie or Benzene?

3. For some scene setting, follow @magpie_daily to get a sense for Benzene’s daily happenings. Does reading about and watching Benzene change how you look at birds in the wild?

4. After Yana brings home an injured Benzene, the bird becomes part of the family. What stories do you and others in your group have of adopting wildlife? How did it go?

"With his English accent and languid yet expressive voice, author/narrator Charlie Gilmour is charming company. His deep, abiding love for his family is obvious. He adores his wife, Yana—he sounds almost amazed by her—and he finds purpose and healing in caring for their accidental pet, a magpie they name Benzene (for the industrial site where they found the little chick). Although Gilmour describes his childhood as loving and safe, he carries emotional scars from his father, Heathcote Williams, having abandoned him as a baby and having rebuffed Gilmour's periodic efforts to build a relationship. Gilmour dives deep into Heathcote's childhood and failed marriages to face his own mental health challenges. In an odd synchronicity, Heathcote once adopted a jackdaw. In both word and performance, FEATHERHOOD is reflective, poetic, and full of wry bird moments."

– Winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, AudioFile Magazine