I heard this book reviewed on Fresh Air and was intrigued. Micro histories have had a surge in popularity, perhaps because the truth is so often stranger than any fiction.
Kirk Wallace Johnson became interested in the theft of over 200 tropical bird specimens while fly fishing. He was intrigued by its puzzle, but also attracted to the idea of a distraction from his draining work with Iraqi refugees who had helped US troops. Johnson takes us into Papua New Guinea with Alfred Wallace, into the scientific community with Charles Darwin, and into the fate of the obsessive bird collector, Walter Rothschild, and his Tring Museum. He also takes us into the world of Victorian feather collecting and its resurgence with fly tiers, then to the childhood of Edwin Rist, whose obsession with Victorian fly fishing leads him to the Tring Museum and the theft of priceless bird specimens, among which were birds collected by Alfred Wallace.
I listened to this book on Audible, in part on a long drive with my 11-year-old daughter, who at times said she thought the book was going into too much detail, particularly about the intricacies of tying flies. Why the detail?
Like his subjects Wallace, Rothschild and Rist, Johnson discovers his own obsessive streak as he hunts for the missing bird specimens across the western world and across years. He dives into this story, these histories, and buries himself in the layers of intricacy, inoculations against the failures he experienced in trying to help the Iraqi refugees.
Focus is a highly heralded attribute, but Johnson’s histories become morality tales of the dangers of obsession. Johnson also asks us to reconsider the value of dusty old museums for the present day, how we value crimes and criminals, and our own role in breaking the law through any number of rationalizations.