ARC: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson – Review
I would like to thank Random House UK and Kirk Wallace Johnson for sending me this ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review
A rollicking true-crime adventure and a thought-provoking exploration of the human drive to possess natural beauty for readers of The Stranger in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.
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.
I’m not one to automatically choose a Non-Fiction book for pleasure but I promised myself I would try to read more this year. I’m always doubtful whether I’ll find enjoyment or worry I’ll drift off wishing I had read something else – fortunately this wasn’t the case at all.
Not only was The Feather Thief informative it was thrilling which ultimately gripped me with suspense. I couldn’t put this book down – my head buried in the pages. What surprised me was the array of different emotions I felt and how these feelings changed throughout.
The author jumped straight into the action, describing the events that took place when Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum in 2009. By doing this, he created excitement and hype for the rest of the book. While reading this I kept thinking to myself, “what’s the issue? It’s just feathers?” – it didn’t seem like a big deal. Edwin’s actions felt relatively harmless as he hadn’t physically hurt anyone – he was after feathers for his fly tying hobby. Crazy is how I would describe it, someone had actually taken the time to research and break into a museum just for feathers.
The next section saw a historical background around the feathers and how they came to be at the museum in Tring, England. The author introduces us to Alfred Russell Wallace, an explorer who discovered the rare and beautiful bird skins. After a lifetime of exploring in remote locations he was able to collect and document these rare bird skins. It was at this point that my opinions of Rist began to shift ever so slightly – Wallace had spent years devoting his life to his work only to have it ruined by a single student.
What I found intriguing was the background of feathers in the Victorian era and how people were so madly obsessed with using feathers for fashion purposes. Having a rare bird sat on top of your head meant you had a high social status. Birds were frequently sought after and people would do anything for an exotic feather. This opened the door to fly tying – Edwin Rist’s hobby.
Though I did appreciate this information and it’s obvious that Kirk Wallace had done extensive research, it did begin to drag somewhat for me.
My favourite section of the book is when the author decides to take things into his own hands, trying to figure out the mystery of remaining missing feathers. It was at this point I could not put the book down, it was important that I found out what happened too. It felt like I was being taken with Kirk Wallace on his journey around the world.
Kirk Wallace did an excellent job of changing my opinion on Edwin Rist. By the end of book I wanted to seek out Rist myself and demand where the remaining feathers were and ask how he could feel no remorse for actions.
I did not expect to like this book but I fell for it. I implore that you read The Feather Thief!