The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.
Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.
Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.
A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.
Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.
The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.
I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.
This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.
Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert had it in her? I’ve read and loved all of her nonfiction (e.g. Big Magic), but my experience of her fiction was a different matter: Stern Men is simply atrocious. I’m so glad I took a chance on this 2013 novel anyway. Many friends had lauded it, and for good reason. It’s a warm, playful doorstopper of a book, telling the long and eventful story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid life in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The novel’s voice feels utterly natural, and though Gilbert must have done huge amounts of research about everything from bryophytes to Tahitian customs, nowhere does the level of historical detail feel overwhelming. There are truly terrific characters, including mystical orchid illustrator Ambrose Pike, perky missionary Reverend Welles, and a charismatic Polynesian leader named Tomorrow Morning.
We see multiple sides of Alma herself, like her enthusiasm for mosses and her sexual yearning. For a short time in her girlhood she’s part of a charming female trio with her adopted sister Prudence and their flighty friend Retta. I loved how Gilbert pins down these three very different characters through pithy (and sometimes appropriately botanical) descriptions: “Prudence’s nose was a little blossom; Alma’s was a growing yam,” while Retta is “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction.”
Gilbert also captures the delight of scientific discovery and the fecundity of nature in a couple of lush passages that are worth quoting in full:
(Looking at mosses on boulders) Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though—smashing through the world of sight—it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast.
Best of all, the novel kept surprising me. Every chapter and part took a new direction I never would have predicted. Like The Goldfinch, this is a big, rich novel I can imagine rereading.
One of my favorite parts of reviewing (e.g. for Kirkus and BookBrowse) is choosing “readalikes” that pick up on the themes or tone of the book in question. I’ve picked four for The Signature of All Things:
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: An enthusiastic, wide-ranging memoir of being a woman in science. There’s even some moss! This was a really interesting one for me to be reading at the same time as the Gilbert novel. (See Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.)
The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock: This biography of Mary Delany, an eighteenth-century botanical illustrator, examines the options for women’s lives at that time and celebrates the way Delany beat the odds by seeking a career of her own in her seventies.