Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast

THE FISHERMEN AND THE DRAGON

In the late 1970s, the fishermen of the Texas Gulf Coast were struggling. The bays that had sustained generations of shrimpers and crabbers were being poisoned by nearby petrochemical plants, oil spills, pesticides, and concrete.  The White fishermen, though, could only see one culprit: the small but growing number of newly resettled Vietnamese refugees who had recently started fishing.

Tensions climbed as White fishermen called for refugee bans and threatened violence in the name of protecting what they claimed was their turf. After a young Vietnamese man killed a White crabber in self-defense, a posse responded by torching Vietnamese boats and a home, leading the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to sense an opportunity. Over the next two years, amid a garish campaign of violence, death threats, and arson, with terrifying Klan rallies and boat patrols, many Vietnamese were ready to flee – until a charismatic South Vietnamese colonel convinced them to stand their ground and put their trust in the Constitution.  Throughout the dizzying clash, which culminated in a tense courtroom showdown, one woman could see clearly enough to recognize the true threat to the bays—and her determination to take on the real villains became the fishermen’s last hope.

Kirk Wallace Johnson’s gripping book depicts a community set on fire by hatred, xenophobia, and ecological disaster. Drawing upon a trove of never-before-published material, case files, and interviews with Klansmen, shrimpers, law enforcement, environmental activists, lawyers, perpetrators, and victims, Johnson uncovers secrets and secures confessions to crimes that went unsolved for more than forty years. It’s a story that braids corporate malfeasance with a battle over shrinking natural resources, at a turning point in the modern white supremacist movement, and highlights one woman’s relentless battle for environmental justice.

EARLY PRAISE:

As heard on Fresh Air, NPR.

“Fast-paced though complex account of ethnic collision among the fisheries of Gulf Coast Texas…[Johnson’s] fascinating and disturbing narrative is a winning mix of biography, true crime, and ecological study. A carefully written investigation full of villains—and the occasional hero.”  Kirkus (Starred Review)

“[A] richly reported and dramatically rendered investigative work…a sweeping story about racism, oil, big business, and climate change. Part thriller, part courtroom drama, and part environmental crusade.” Fortune

“[A] powerful story…thoughtful and thoroughly researched.  Although many of these events occurred more than 40 years ago, there is a queasy topicality to the fight for the Texas Gulf.”  The Economist

“Johnson builds an exhaustive and disturbing account of how racism drove…white fishermen to misdirect their personal and economic frustrations onto the Vietnamese, setting the immigrants’ boats and houses on fire and eventually enlisting the might of the Ku Klux Klan.”  New York Times

“Xenophobia, the ethical limits of free speech, environmental disaster, the psychological effects of war, corporate greed—Johnson tackles all of these and more in his follow-up to 2018’s The Feather Thief…a sprawling historical narrative with sobering connections to our current moment. Book clubs interested in nonfiction selections will find much to work with here.”  Booklist (Starred Review)

Johnson spins a twisty tale that reads like a cross between a crime thriller and Where the Crawdads Sing in its vivid setting of the scene. He blows the lid off a true story lost to history—which still feels shockingly relevant today.”  Amazon (“Best Nonfiction Books in August“)

“Riveting…it has a little of everything that a thrilling story needs.  It feels quite prescient, as if something we’re living out now, you can see scenes of it then.  A gripping book that deserves a wide readership.”  George Packer, Staff Writer for The Atlantic

“A sweeping tour de force of reportage and storytelling.”  Raffi Khatchadourian, Staff Writer for The New Yorker

“[F]ascinating…this book does demonstrate…that humanity’s propensity for immorality, greed, and laziness can come from very different directions and in very different forms.”  Science

“[S]crupulously reported…Johnson displays an unmistakable admiration for the Vietnamese fishermen, rooted in their grit and perseverance. But he also strives to understand the response of the established fishermen to their new neighbors. Their perspective calls to mind a much more famous Springsteen song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” which describes a working-class soldier who returns from the Vietnam War only to find economic precarity and social alienation.”  Texas Monthly (“Who Belongs Here?“)

“Fascinating pieces of this story were lying around for the taking…but Johnson deserves tremendous credit for weaving together so many compelling tales.  In this narrative chock full of details, he ably pieces together a tale that teaches us a lot about the struggle that so many Texas fishermen still face, though these days threats come more from climate change than from men in white robes. And, now as it was then, from corporate polluters.  This relevant and revelatory book provides deeper information about truly shocking episodes in coastal Texas history—but also reason to hope.”  Texas Observer

“Johnson’s exceptional research, including interviews with…Klan sympathizers, and members of the Vietnamese community, allows him to marshal this sprawling history into a propulsive narrative. The result is a fascinating study of the forces roiling the Texas Gulf Coast and other parts of America.”  Publisher’s Weekly

“Though The Fishermen and the Dragon is ostensibly an investigative accounting of past events…it reveals much to us about our future. What happens when multinational corporations destroy traditional, local ways of life through greed, incompetence, and malfeasance? And then what happens when displaced communities, with no agenda other than to feed their families, are added to the mix? Kirk Wallace Johnson tries to answer these questions—and more—in this deeply reported story of struggling Texas Gulf Coast fishermen, Vietnamese refugees, rampant and widespread pollution, blatant xenophobia, and the deeply racist violence that inevitably ensues. There is a lesson here, and we’d better learn it fast.” LitHub (“The Most Anticipated Books of 2022“)

“[T]he true story of struggling fishermen, racism and xenophobia, and environmental disaster on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1970s.” BookRiot (“40 of the Best Summer Reads for 2022“)

“Two stories interweave, collide, and ripple for more than 40 years, and Johnson’s thorough, diligent research and brisk storytelling make this narrative compelling for those seeking thrills or truths. Recommended for readers interested in environmental or racial justice and the power of activism.”  Library Journal

  • October 20. Rancho Mirage Writers Series. Rancho Mirage, CA. 2-4:00 p.m. PST.

  • June 15-18, 2023. Nantucket Book Festival. Nantucket, MA.

Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

THE FEATHER THIEF

An Amazon Best Book of 2018; 2019 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award Nominee (Shortlist); 2019 Edgar Awards Nominee – Best Fact Crime (Finalist); Oprah’s 20 Best True Crime Books of All Time; Goodreads Choice Awards Semifinalist; Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee (Longlist); Outside’s The Outdoor Books that Shaped the Last Decade“; Buzzfeed Best Books of 2018; Outside Best Books of 2018Popular Mechanics Best Sci/Tech Books of 2018; Forbes Best Books About Birds in 2018; Mental Floss Best Books of 2018; American Birding Association Best of 2018; BookPage Best Books of 2018; BookRiot Favorite Books of 2018; Outside’s The Contemporary Adventure Canon; Good Housekeeping’s 25 Best True Crime Books of All Time

“[A]bsorbing…though it’s non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller.”  NPR’s FRESH AIR

“[O]ne of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever.”  CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR 

“Johnson has written 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

Johnson, like Susan Orlean before him, is a magnifier: he sees grand themes—naïveté, jealousy, depression, the entitlement of man—in, say, the plumes of the king bird-of-paradise, collected by the nineteenth-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace between bouts of fever in the Pacific. That vision makes a book about things like Victorian salmon fly tiers feel heavy as gold.­­”  THE NEW YORKER

“Clever, informative, and sometimes endearingly bumbling, this mix of natural history and crime opens up new worlds.” AMAZON’S BEST BOOKS OF 2018 (#3)

“It is all a bit mad. Johnson, a wonderfully assured writer, takes us on a curious journey into the past…The Feather Thief proves that the most obscure, “candy-ass” activities can be made interesting for the general reader. Johnson makes his tale as vivid and arresting as a quetzal’s tail.”  THE TIMES OF LONDON

“Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book…Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense. [I]t’s a tribute to Johnson’s storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft.”  THE SPECTATOR

“Fascinating…a complex tale of greed, deception and ornithological sabotage.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

“[A]n object lesson in humanity’s capacity for sheer, blind selfishness.” THE SEATTLE TIMES

“[A] remarkable story Johnson tells with novelistic skill.”  LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

“Charming…There’s a lot to Johnson’s book, and he ties it together well, reeling you into disparate historical subjects in a thrilling catch-and-release style. [W]orth its weight in exotic bird feathers, which you’ll learn are very expensive.” The Paris Review (Staff Pick)

“the kind of beguiling spiral of a non-fiction work which I adore…Our quester, a kind of plumalogical Philip Marlowe, struggles and squirms at his meetings with these people.”  THE SCOTSMAN

The Feather Thief is an uncommon book.  It could have been about nothing more than an ill person who did an odd thing.  But it’s not.  It entertains while it educates.  It informs and enlightens…we need more books like this one.”  SCIENCE

“[A] riveting read. It also stands…as a reminder of how an obsession with the ornaments of nature — be they feathers, bird eggs or ivory — can wreak havoc on our scientific heritage.” NATURE

“Way more interesting than you’d think a book about a guy who stole some dead birds could possibly be, this is a remarkably compelling story of obsession and history and a man who so loved his art that he would break the law for it.” BOOKLIST (Starred Review)

“[F]ascinating…a book about obsession, from the fly-tying community’s hunt for specific bird species to Johnson’s own need for justice and closure after the case is resolved. This is a gripping, multifaceted book about our need to possess beauty in the name of historical authenticity.” INDIE NEXT PICK: MAY

“a wide-ranging, captivating work…just like a master fly-tier, Johnson skillfully weaves these disparate strands into a scintillating whole.  I was more than happy to bite and be reeled in.”  LITERARY REVIEW 

“Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold…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 (Starred Review)

“[An] enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime…a page-turner”  Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

“You’ll never look at a feather in the same way again after reading this riveting detective story…[a] fantastical narrative which brilliantly weaves together Alfred Russel Wallace, the surprisingly shadowy history of fly fishing, conservation and the plumage of the most beautiful birds on Earth.” Bookseller (“Editor’s Choice, April 2018”)

“[A] thrilling read.”  Bustle (“The 9 Most Anticipated True Crime Books of 2018“)

“An adventure caper, a dose of true crime, and an obsession with the natural world fill this exciting spring release…fascinating from the first page to the last—you won’t be able to put it down.”  Southern Living (“Our Bookshelves Can’t Wait for these 2018 Spring Releases“)

“[A] batshit insane story”  Chicago Reader (“Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018“)

“[A] true crime caper recounted with relish.”  O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE. (May 2018 Issue)

“Riveting.” Goodreads (“40 of the Hottest Mysteries & Thrillers of 2018“)

"The Feather Heist"
The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind

TO BE A FRIEND IS FATAL

“Devastating…”  Michiko Kakutani.  The New York Times.

“A truly incredible story.”  Ira Glass.  This American Life.

“A searing account.”  George Packer.  The New Yorker.

“It is difficult to imagine a book more urgent than this.”  Rayyan al-Shawaf.  The Boston Globe.

“Kirk W. Johnson’s rage-inducing account of government indifference is a tale of lost innocence that, in our American twilight, feels devastatingly allegorical.”  Megan O’Grady.  Vogue.

“This authentic patriot has written a must-read memoir.”  Trudy Rubin.  The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The well-written book – the author is an honest, engaging and indomitable guide – warrants a special place in nonfiction shelves.  He captures the tragicomedy of Iraq better than anyone else’s chronicle I have read so far.”  Kael Weston.  The Daily Beast.