Friday, December 22, 2023

Book Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson


Goodreads Overview:

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins--some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them--and escaped into the darkness.

Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

Jacque's Review:

This was the July selection for the Books on Tap book club hosted by my library at a local brewery. This book was a 2018 Goodreads Choice Award nominee for Best Nonfiction, and I can see why. I knew nothing about this robbery that took place at a British Museum. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare bird skins were taken without the museum staff immediately noticing. I am not a fly fisherman, so I don't fully appreciate the appeal of using extremely rare and expensive feathers to catch fish. I'm sure in most cases the people making and selling these flies are just putting them on a shelf to display and are not actually using them, but was fascinating to learn about this art and the black-market sale of bird feathers.

We learn the history of how all of the birds were originally collected and cataloged at the museum and why it was deemed to be such an important collection. The heist takes place, and the reader learns about what happened during the investigation and trial. The author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, is determined to find the remaining birds that were not returned to the museum or clearly destroyed by making flies. He completes his own investigation and eventually lands an interview with the thief himself. I have no idea why Edwin Rist would agree to an interview. He clearly had nothing to gain at that point, but he did, and the reader can get a better understanding of his personality.

It is incomprehensible to me that someone as smart and talented as Edwin could have committed such a crime. He was so consumed with the fly-tying world that he would do anything to acquire the feathers needed to make some of the most famous flies. In addition, he wanted money for a new flute. His family did not have the money to buy it for him and he deemed it necessary if he was going to compete with the finest musicians in the world at the Royal Academy of Music. The fact that he basically walked off scot-free is even more astonishing. 

I am not much of a non-fiction reader, but I really enjoyed this story. It was very entertaining and educational without coming off like a history book. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the heist or fly-tying will enjoy this book. 

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