Monday, January 24, 2022

The Feather Thief: Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

 January is off to a good start as I have read such a variety of books. One that fascinated and surprised me was Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief, the true story of a heist at the Britain's Natural History Museum in the small town of Tring. Johnson was working to draw attention to the security and safety needs of Afghanis who had cooperated with U.S. Troops when this unusual story was brought to his attention during a fly-fishing excursion. 

He became obsessed with the story, starting with Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years collecting rare and colorful bird species for the museum, while simultaneously with Darwin developing the theory of natural selection. After losing years of work when a fire broke out aboard the ship when he was returning with his collection, he returned to Malaysia to focus on the Birds of Paradise.

Johnson also provides historical background on the eventual movement to protect the beautiful but rare bird species after so many were collected for women's fashions. The account of a cape made from thousands of hummingbird bodies was enough to give me pause.

The anti-hero of the story Edwin Rist was a young American flute player studying music in England. His interest in music, however, was rivaled by his obsession with salmon flying tying. In that world, he was something of a prodigy. When he learned of the variety of feathers and bird skins stored in drawers in Tring, he broken in through a window and escaped with more than a hundred rare birds. (This is no spoiler alert, since the book opens with the heist.)

While it took the museum weeks even to know the birds had been taken, Rist was eventually brought to justice but let off with barely a slap on the wrist. Johnson, realizing many of the stolen birds were unaccounted for, took on the mission of tracking them down and finding the complete story. 

I knew about other art thefts--the Isabella Stewart Museum, The Scream, Mona Lisa, but this was a new story to me. Having recently read Rachel Joyce's novel Miss Benson's Beetle, about the search for a rare insect, this true story fascinated me with the drive to find unusual creatures in order to attempt to save them.


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