Feather Thief (Johnson)

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Kirk Wallace Johnson, 2018
Penguin Publishing
320 pp.

A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1980?
Where—West Chicago, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., University of Chicago
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California

Kirk W. Johnson is the author of To Be a Friend Is Fatal and the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, among others. He is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the American Academy in Berlin, and the USC Annenberg Center. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
A fascinating book …the kind of intelligent reported account that alerts us to a threat and that, one hopes, will never itself be endangered.
Wall Street Journal

Vivid and arresting.… Johnson [is] a wonderfully assured writer.
Times (UK)

Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book.… Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense.… It’s a tribute to [his] storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft.
Maggie Fergusson - Spectator (UK)

One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever.… Johnson is an intrepid journalist … [with] a fine knack for uncovering details that reveal, captivate, and disturb.
Christian Science Monitor

An uncommon book… [that] informs and enlightens.… A heist story that manages to underline the enduring and continuing importance of natural history collections and their incredible value to science. We need more books like this one.

Johnson succeeds in conveying the gravity of this natural-history "heist of the century," and one of The Feather Thief’s greatest strengths is the excitement, horror, and amazement it evokes. It’s nonfiction that reads like fiction, with plenty of surprising moments.

A riveting story about mankind’s undeniable desire to own nature’s beauty and a spellbinding examination of obsession, greed, and justice …[told] in engrossing detail.… A gripping page-turner.

(Starred review) [An] enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime.… Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [M]ind-blowing…a riveting historical tour of the feather trade from the 1800s to the present. The resolution, however, is frustrating and demonstrates both the importance and difficulty of preserving our natural history. —Deirdre Bray Root, formerly with MidPointe Lib. Syst., OH
Library Journal

(Starred review) A remarkably compelling story of obsession and history.

(Starred review) [C]aptivating.… Throughout, Johnson's flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite.… A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man's "unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost."
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for THE FEATHER THIEF … then take off on your own:

m. Johnson reports that a fly-tier expert warned Johnson away from pursuing the story of the Tring theft. "I don’t think you want to write that story.… We’re a tight-knit community, fly-tiers, and you do not want to piss us off.” Johnson becomes frustrated by those who don't seem to grasp the seriousness of Rist's crime. Why is it such a serious crime?

m. What was Edwin Rist's motivation for his theft? Actually, is obsession a motivation?

m. What are your thoughts regarding Edwin Rist's legal penalty? Fair? Too light?

m. When the author interviews Rist, he shows little remorse for his theft. What do you think of Rist and his self-exoneration? He says at one point:

[A]ll of the scientific data that can be extracted from them has been extracted from them. You can no longer use DNA, because what you would want to do it for is to prolong and help living birds, which hasn’t really worked anyway, because they’re still going extinct, or will go extinct depending on what happens with the rainforests.

Is Rist correct? Or is that beside the point?

m. Follow-up to Question XXX: Juxtaposed to Rist's lack of remorse is the museum's science director who calls the theft a "catastrophic event," of "stealing knowledge from humanity." Is it catastrophic? What do the losses mean to science?

m. Talk about why the loss of the birds' identity tags is so devastating to the scientists.

m. In what way does the basic conflict at the heart of this book continue today? That conflict is the belief that nature is worth preserving for posterity vs. the belief that nature is put here for the use and betterment of humankind. In what other areas do we see this debate playing out, and where do you stand in regards to it?

m. Is The Feather Thief an important book or merely an entertaining book about an absurd obsession? Do we need care about what happened to the birds of Tring? What is their value to science? Johnson says that the curators had protected the specimens for years, because they "understood that the birds held answers to questions that hadn't yet even been asked." If the questions haven't been formulated by this juncture in history, are they really that important?

m. Of the three sections of the book—the story of the theft, the history of Alfred Russell Wallace and the Victorian era's "feather fever," the author's experiences researching this book—which do you find most interesting?

m. Alfred Russell Wallace once expounded on the importance of cataloguing the natural world:

[T]he individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this valuable record of the past.

Do you think he is right?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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