The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Reviewed by Anne McCallum
In this real-life detective story, the author, a journalist and Iraqi War survivor with PTSD who finds solace in fly fishing, learns that a promising young virtuoso classical flautist and well-known fly-tier has stolen a massive number of irreplaceable exotic skins and feathers from the Tring Museum, an outpost of the British Natural History Museum. This sounds to him like a story ready made to get his mind off a messy war and its tragic aftermath, and he jumps into it.
The book opens with the crime, but then backs WAY up to the real beginning of the story—the amazing life and collecting expeditions of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, who overcame huge personal disasters to become one of the greatest names in biogeography. The next chapter examines the museums that gathered and preserved these kinds of amazing collections for posterity—particularly the Tring Museum of uber-rich Walter Rothchild. The author also explores the millenary feather craze that almost wiped out the exotic birds themselves before women themselves began the pushback that lead to the legal protections that have become the bulwark against extinction. While wealthy women were sporting exotic feathers on their heads, wealthy men were using them for fly fishing on their estates—an avocation that has today morphed into the cultish fine art of fly-tying.
Enter young Edwin Rist, who, at 22 was so consumed with fly-tying that he was willing to risk his stellar musical career to stage a heist of some of the most gorgeous and irreplaceable Tring specimens to supply his own needs and to sell on secretive online sites. Guilty or not guilty, your honor? The remainder of the book explores Rist’s motivations, his methods, the discovery and solving of the crime, the plea, his co-conspirators, and the frustrating search for what remains of the stolen goods. Along the way the author meets one angry scientist, Dr. Richard Prum, who happens “to be looking for a journalist willing to shine a light on a hobby that he wanted to stigmatize into oblivion.” (188).
Those of us in the Early Birds Book Club all agreed we loved the book. We learned new and fascinating things in every chapter. Were the specimens ever recovered? Read and find out!
About the Early Birds Book Club:
The Early Birds will be reading and discussing Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience for our March 24 meeting. Instead of tackling the whole book, each Early Bird member is invited to read one or two chapters and present a short summary/commentary at the meeting. If you plan to attend, just pick one or two (or more) and join us for the discussion.
The April book is Of a Feather, by Scott Weidensaul. We will not meet in May as there is no meeting due to the Atlanta Bird Fest Closing Celebration.
The Early Birds is a drop-in book club. There is no commitment other than to enjoy reading and sharing books about birds and birding. Each meeting begins at 2:00 PM prior to the Monthly Meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. If you wish to join the Early Birds’ e-mail list for announcements and reminder notices, please e-mail Mary Nevil.