The Parrot Trainer


At the center of this beguiling novel of the Southwest is an odd romantic triangle—an archaeologist, a former pot thief and art dealer, and a sassy spirit.

Jack, who had been a prominent art dealer and collector, finds a sketch of a parrot trainer from an ancient, Indian Mimbres bowl along with a map to a cliff dwelling, at the scene of a fatal accident. He is fascinated by the image of a parrot trainer and her haunting gesture. Obsessed, he finds the bowl and is stung by ...

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At the center of this beguiling novel of the Southwest is an odd romantic triangle—an archaeologist, a former pot thief and art dealer, and a sassy spirit.

Jack, who had been a prominent art dealer and collector, finds a sketch of a parrot trainer from an ancient, Indian Mimbres bowl along with a map to a cliff dwelling, at the scene of a fatal accident. He is fascinated by the image of a parrot trainer and her haunting gesture. Obsessed, he finds the bowl and is stung by something venomous as he descends the cliff. He manages to drive home in spite of his violent reaction to the venom. There, to his confusion, Willow, the Parrot Trainer, comes alive and begs him to free her spirit from the bowl. Jack is certain she is an hallucination, a product of his own mind.

Lucy, an archaeologist from the east, is in New Mexico to give a speech at a convention when she receives a call from Philip, a renowned archaeologist, her mentor and lover. Philip has discovered that a secret DNA test at Berkeley has identified a caucasoidal specimen from a 15,000-year-old body found in a glacier in Alaska and that the sample was sent by a Jack Miller in Silverado. This significant find could revive his waning celebrity. Philip asks Lucy to find Miller and get him to reveal the location of the man in the glacier.

After Lucy’s speech, she has a run-in with Henri, a pixieish deconstructionist, who is the subject of a documentary by edgy Anita and her wildman/cameraman Billy. When Anita and Billy learn of Lucy’s plan to go to Silverado, they offer to take her so they can film the fireworks between Lucy and Henri. The drive from Albuquerque to Silverado turns into an antic—and sometimes violent—road trip, as they clash with each other and provoke the locals.

Tweaking knee-jerk political correctness and academia, Swain Wolfe provides a rich archaeological and anthropological background that deals with some of the fields’ most controversial issues. Witty, sexy, and packed with local color, this is a novel of ideas with the additional appeal of enchanting magic realism, high adventure, and a tender love story.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wolfe draws knowledgeably on the culture of a vanished New Mexican tribe in his latest novel of the contemporary West (after The Lake Dreams the Sky), but fails to breathe much life into his present-day protagonists. Jack Miller is a swaggering, play-by-his-own-rules art collector who has made a fortune peddling forged Southwestern antiquities. Now in retirement, he discovers the body of a German tourist who had happened upon a major find: a hidden cache of pottery belonging to the Mimbres, a Southwestern tribe that died out long before Columbus even considered the New World. Jack locates the cache and grabs the prize piece, a bowl depicting a beautiful parrot trainer, but-perhaps due to the effects of an insect sting-the female spirit of the trainer begins to haunt Jack's imagination. There's also a real-life woman to contend with, archeologist Lucy Perelli, whose moral approach to pottery hunting clashes with Jack's more fluid ethic. As Wolfe steers Jack and Lucy toward the expected romance, they are joined by a clownish French theorist named Henri Bash and his film crew, and trailed by two lowlife characters called Rat and Raw Bone. Despite their constant banter, Jack and Lucy don't have much chemistry, and the brief discussion of white exploitation of American Indian culture is too lightweight to salvage a predictable plot. Readers with an interest in the Southwest will enjoy Wolfe's playful take on the culture, but those further afield won't find much to hold their attention. Regional author tour. (Feb. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The Parrot Trainer is a strange mix of comedy, archeology and hallucination. The story begins when Jack Miller, an unrepentant finder and seller of Southwestern Indian antiquities, especially of the Mimbres tribe, witnesses an auto accident and finds clues in the wreck to a newly discovered site. What follows is a combination of strange characters, some real and some not, and observations about the Southwestern cultures of the past and the present and the similarity between the legal and illegal collection of archaeological finds. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, St. Martin's, Griffin, 310p. bibliog., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
This is a novel about archaeology, academia, postmodernist theory, enduring love, motorcycle gangs, documentary filmmaking, rain, impermanence, and life in the Southwest, past and present. Jack Miller is a reformed looter of American Indian antiquities who illegally tracks down one last Mimbres bowl, enchanted by its image of a female parrot trainer. Bitten by a scorpion while retrieving the bowl from a cave, Jack hallucinates (or does he?) that the beautiful woman comes to life in his living room and talks about her people, the Mimbres, who lived in New Mexico 1000 years ago. Montana filmmaker Wolfe, author of The Lake Dreams the Sky and The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, has created a surprisingly sweet narrative both real and surreal that places the reader vividly in the Southwest. There is a bibliography for readers who wish to learn more about Southwestern cultures and archaeology. Recommended for all public libraries.-Lisa Bier, Southern Connecticut State Univ., New Haven, CT
Kirkus Reviews
A witty send-up of antiquarians and academics by Wolfe (The Lake Dreams the Sky, 1998, etc.) combines a dead German anthropologist, a trendy French postmodernist, a Native American pottery forger, and a shady art dealer for a southwestern comedy of errors. Jack Miller, dealer in Native American artifacts, is in Lacuna Canyon one day when a Ford Taurus drives off the canyon ledge above him and lands a few feet away. Inside are the mortal remains of a German anthropologist, along with a map and journal describing the location of a Mimbre burial site. This is Jack's lucky day: The Mimbre are an extinct tribe famed for their extraordinary pottery, and, before laws were passed restricting its sale, Jack made good money buying and selling Mimbre pieces. He hurries to the site and discovers an antiquarian's dream: a tomb filled with rare Mimbre artifacts in perfect condition. When he secretly sends a bone fragment to a local lab for dating estimates, however, all hell breaks loose: The skeleton belongs to a tribe never seen in the region before, providing evidence of prehistoric migrations that archaeologists have been arguing over for decades. The discovery is leaked to Lucy Perelli, director of the Archaeological Preservation Fund, who descends on Lacuna Canyon in a whirlwind, desperate to find the site before anyone else. But she's not exactly alone, since the French social theorist Henri Bashe, who met her at an Albuquerque conference, insists on coming along-together with the film crew that's shooting a Reel TV documentary of him. At the palatial home of wealthy art collector Sylvia Siskin, Lucy discovers the Indian art forger Kills the Deer, who worked with Jack in the past and nowreluctantly agrees to help Lucy find him. Jack, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how much loot he can get away with before the Treasury Department and State Police track him down. Subtle, sophisticated fun that will appeal to anyone who has ever suffered through an academic conference-or an episode of Antiques Roadshow.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312310912
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.68 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Swain Wolfe

A former documentary filmmaker, Swain Wolfe is the author of The Woman Who Lives in the Earth and The Lake Dreams the Sky. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Adam Michalo (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Denver, Colorado

Reading Group Guide

1. Was Willow, the Parrot Trainer, a product of Jack's imagination or a thousand-year-old spirit?

2. Passion is an important element in the novel. How many love stories and passions do you remember?

3. What do the sisters offer Jack in their compelling mix of innocence and experience? Do you know children who have done the same?

4. How did the Mimbres' relationship with nature differ from ours?

5. Compare Willow's Mimbres concept of death and afterlife with Christian concepts.

7. What do Jack's mudmen reveal about his personality and outlook on life?

8. How would you describe Henri's view of America?

9. Kills the Deer says, "What makes you an Indian is white people." What does he mean by this?

10. How is culture cannibalistic?

11. What makes or breaks men like Philip Sachs? What has fame done to and for him?

12. What does the coatimundi signify in the novel?

13. Compare Henri Bashe's reaction to Sylvia Siskin's relics and collection, and Jack's initial reaction to the drawing of the Parrot Trainer bowl. What statement is the author making about the role of fear and awe as the basis of faith?

14. Henri Bashe said "the waking world is merely illusory…the world of dreams is the true reality." What does he mean by this? How is this statement borne out in the novel?

15. Sylvia Siskin says, "We cannot beat God at his own game." What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her?

6. Sylvia Siskin, Jack, and Lucy have unconventional views about fake antiquities. What do fakes say abouthow we value originality in our culture?

17. Outsiders are often drawn to certain landscapes. Eventually the landscape defines the outsider. How does this dynamic work with Rawbone and Rat and the biker gang? Why is one sort of outsider romantic and another not? Discuss in terms of these characters and other outsider types.

18. This discovery of the iceman provokes different reactions from a variety of individuals and groups. What does he mean to Jack, Lucy, Philip, Indians in general, and archaeologists?


Swain Wolfe was raised on ranches in the high country of Colorado and Montana. As a young man, he was a logger and later an underground miner in Butte, Montana. His primary work has been making films about cultural anthropology and the impact of human activity on the environment. He is the author of two other novels: The Woman Who Lives in the Earth and The Lake Dreams the Sky. He lives in Missoula, Montana. He is currently at work on his next novel, The Boy Who Invented Skiing, about hardscrabble ranch life.



A question and an image were the seeds of The Parrot Trainer.

The question, what is the value of culture? Why do we have culture, and what do we pay for the privilege, are questions that generally color the underlying observations, descriptions, and humor of the characters in the novel.

The image is from a nine-hundred-year-old clay bowl made by a Mimbres Indian potter, an evocative portrait of a young woman balancing a parrot in a hoop. I believe the woman was painted by someone who loved her deeply. It was the gesture made by her stance, a sensuous, playful, gesture, that drew me to her. Perhaps she was dancing.

Beginning with the question of culture, I was looking for characters and a situation that would embrace the many conflicting ways of thinking about culture, its value and the penalties it demands from the individual. Archaeology and its foes became a point of departure for me when I learned about the Kennewick Man conflict in Eastern Washington State - a fight between the local native tribes and several archaeologists over the ownership of the bones of the ninety-three-hundred-year-old male found on the shore of the Columbia River.

Having lived and worked in New Mexico and knowing something of the conflicts between archaeologists and antiquities looters - also known as pot hunters - I began searching through books and monographs on Southwestern archaeology. Most of what I encountered involved various pueblo dwellers and the ancient Anasazi of Chaco Canyon and the later cliff houses period. But one book had a photograph of a painted Mimbres bowl. The image inside the bowl was of an animal with a long tail on which sat a parrot. The animal had a man's face. The animal/man and the parrot appeared to be in the midst of a conversation. The creature was quite playful and somewhat menacing.

Two and a half intense years of everything Mimbres followed. I went to New Mexico to interview archaeologists, to look at museum collections, and to search out obscure books on this tribe that was said to have vanished in AD 1130.

One warm winter day near the main square in Santa Fe I was looking through the Mimbres section in Dumont Maps and Books, found J.J. Brody's Mimbres Painted Pottery, and leafing through, discovered the bowl with the painting of the parrot trainer. She became my obsession and the pivotal character of the novel.

Cynthia Bettison, the Director of the museum at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, became my first guide to the Mimbres culture. The museum houses the largest permanent display of Mimbres artifacts in the world. Cynthia devoted many hours to answering my questions and shooting down my more extreme crackpot theories as I gained enough knowledge to make outlandish leaps, kindly referred to as fanciful.

The basements of museums house objects that often never see the light of a display case, and for the most part are not of interest to the general public, but for the obsessed they are a treasure trove that lead to new insights and theories while destroying others. Basements were the place to be. One of the larger Mimbres collections, rarely seen for lack of display space, is housed in the basement of the Maxwell Museum at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. They also have an extensive, cross-referenced photographic collection of Mimbres bowls.

The Museum of Natural History has an enormous collection of artifacts, including a few Mimbres, that languish in hundreds of thousand of drawers in a building the size of a football field that's three stories high outside Washington, D.C.

I returned to Silver City several times to haunt the museum and to discuss theories of the Mimbres Culture with Dr. Bettison, but that was only part of the reason for my excursions to Silver, as it is known in the area. Hidden away in the hills were those elusive men and women who were once pot hunters, who for obvious reasons were difficult to find. Serendipity was an important element in discovering people who would dare talk about their activities. Of course, late nights and heavy drinking were involved - something shared with many in the archaeology trade. One claimed a collection of bowls larger than that at the Maxwell. But I have forgotten their names, what few gave me their names. Even their faces have blurred into gentle obscurity.

Equally as interesting, though less melodramatic, were the encounters with J.J. Brody, Steven LeBlanc, and Anthony Berlant - the three men who founded the Mimbres Foundation and saved several Mimbres sites from the previously mentioned "pot hunters".

I would not like to choose between the official saviors of ancient cultures and those who remove antiquities from the physical context of their discovery. To the archaeologist, context is everything - the key to information, the writing of books, their jobs and status, and most importantly, we all want to believe, to their passions. To the pot hunter/looter it is the object that counts most, as it was to the vast majority of museum curators until the middle of the twentieth century.

I found the looters' motivations were varied, sometimes misguided, conflicted, and complex. Of course, a lot of them were in it for the money, but many had simply pursued a family tradition of going out into the hills on weekends to dig up things no one else seemed to care about. For some, it was the love of beautiful objects, and for all, I think, it was the desire to uncover a mystery. More than one "looter" has gone on to acquire a degree in archaeology, and many archaeologist have their own private collections. The data produced by archaeology and the lust for ancient objects represent a conflict that is part of the romantic allure of the field. And it wasn't until I had finished my research and written the better part of the story that I began to understand the meaning of the Parrot Trainer's gesture.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2003

    must read for Swain Wolfe fans

    While the ¿Parrot Trainer¿ is not for everyone, it is a must read for Wolfe fans who agreed with Bloomsbury Review in that, his earlier book, ¿The Woman Who Lives in the Earth will become a classic.¿ For myself, Swain Wolfe¿s writing goes beyond classic, nearly into scripture status for us who are pathologically curious about everything and anything. The Parrot Trainer gives us very serious, extensively researched, information, and very imaginative, incredible, playful entertainment at the same time. The Parrot Trainer gives us a timeless and timely glimpse of who we are.

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