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The Feather Thief: Bottomland Book Club

the feather thief book laying on a wooden bridge

Written by Jessi Cole

The Feather Thief is the book that set into motion my pursuit of fly-fishing. The gripping tale is a mix of true crime, of 19th century naturalist history, and of the modern obsession with the art of Victorian salmon fly-tying—an art that traditionally called for feathers of the most exotic and rare birds of the world, birds like the king bird of paradise.

Of course, now, the buying and selling of these rare bird feathers is illegal. But for Edwin Rist—the book’s central figure—he couldn’t bear the idea of using synthetic or common feathers for his flies. So instead, he broke into the British Natural History Museum and stole hundreds of rare bird skins collected over 150 years prior. He then dismantled each skin, stripping the feathers off, to use himself and sell on the fly-tying materials black marketplaces.

The book reads like a crime thriller—a strange heist story, more like. I was immediately captivated by this obsessive community of fly tiers and the obsessive compulsion of Edwin Rist. And Johnson doesn’t gloss over the larger theme of the story: the message of man’s insistence to “possess” nature, their “unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.”

Grab a copy at your local bookstore for some great summer reading.

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