Kirk Wallace Johnson’s greatest strength as a writer may be his ability to weave disparate threads together.
Kirk Wallace Johnson’s greatest strength as a writer may be his ability to weave disparate threads together. The Feather Thief blends memoir, natural history, true crime and more to assemble a particularly bizarre story. The basic plot is simple enough: Edwin Rist stole rare feathers from a branch of the British Museum of Natural History. Johnson recognizes complexity in the tale, looking into all the puzzling questions that surround the event and its aftermath. As he lines up the various storylines that make up his book, he develops a full look at obsession in its multiple forms, including the path his own mind takes.
Johnson’s own discovery of the central story provides a useful entry point. His own military experience in Iraq, his PTSD and his working to help Iraqi colleagues find refuge led him to fly-fishing as “a kind of release.” In this escape from his turbulent world, he stumbled into a story that would become a new obsession, a mystery that would cross multiple continents and dive deep into a strange subculture. Since the tale quickly becomes complicated, Johnson backs up to the beginning, with Alfred Russell Wallace, the quests for exotic birds and the history of these strange feathers.
That background smoothly leads into the use of rare feathers in a particularly strain of fly-tying, that is done not for fishing but for art (these flies take hours to tie and are far too complex and expensive to actually fish with). As time progresses and environmental laws change, finding the necessary feathers becomes its own art form. Understanding the case’s Victorian roots provides not only reasoning for why the crime would make sense, but for the sort of damage done with the theft.
Johnson paces the book well, dedicating the right amount of time to that sort of lead-in before exploring Rist’s crime in detail. The drama of the book stems less from how Rist pulled off his heist, but in figuring out why he nearly got away with it and how he was eventually, more or less accidentally, undone. That sequence alone would make for a compelling read, but Johnson – far into his fixation with the case – realized that too many questions were still unanswered, and he sets off on his own adventure to understand what really happened, who was involved, why Rist received such a light sentence and where the invaluable, but still missing, feathers are.
The Feather Thief thrives in its final third, but it also never quite gets as deep as it could. Johnson’s awareness of his own mentality in his pursuit adds an extra personal dynamic (and further develops the theme of obsession that connects Victorian naturalists, fly-tiers, Rist himself and the author). Johnson begins to touch on some heavy issues about the effects of mania and the limits of knowledge, but prevents himself from following those trails. He likely shows some wisdom in that restraint; the book nicely blends journalistic reportage with personal essay, but never ventures too far into philosophizing. Even so, a story this big and weird could be used to develop some further thinking on all the entangled issues. Johnson maybe shouldn’t ask “what is truth?” – but a little questioning about how we understand our own knowledge could make his climactic pages that much more valuable.
To ask for that work might be to ask for a digression, and it’s a small mark against The Feather Thief that it doesn’t deliver on more than it intends. Its actual content – as education, entertainment and reflection – warrants slow and delighted reading. Johnson offers enough of himself in the whole mix to ground everything in a personal experience, but uncovers something expansive. At the very least, he’s earned a break to go fishing.