Birds of a Fly-tying Feather   Leave a comment

The Feather Thief
I first heard about The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson on NPR. It struck me that a nonfiction account of something as seemingly innocuous as bird feathers would warrant the subtitle: Beauty, Obsession and The Natural History Heist of the Century. After all, why would someone rob a museum of feathers?

Johnson provides the answer in great detail. He recounts the efforts by 19th century naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who trekked through Malaysia on scientific expeditions and amassed, among other things, a collection of birds, many of which are now either extinct or near extinction.

Johnson recounts the feather fashion frenzy at the turn of the 20th century before introducing readers to 22-year-old Edwin Rist, an American flutist studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He also happened to be a part of a fly fishing subculture specializing in tying Victorian-era salmon ties. Toward this end, the requisite feathers for the flies to be as authentic as possible were among the ones gathered by Wallace.

It’s no mystery that Rist steals hundreds of birds/feathers from the Tring Museum, an outpost of the British Natural History Museum, to fuel his hobby and to sell to others. The author is drawn to story because Rist essentially gets away with the crime causing Johnson to wonder who ended up with the stolen goods – something he decides to pursue.

This part history/party mystery is a quick read. Although, the idea of stealing feathers to craft flies remains baffling.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and The Natural History Heist of the Century
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Viking 2018
308 pages with notes, bibliography and index


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