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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  History of Science & Nature

For Want of Wings A Bird with Teeth and a Dinosaur in the Family

By: Jill Hunting(Author)
244 pages, 21 plates with b/w photos and b/w illustrations
For Want of Wings
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  • For Want of Wings ISBN: 9780806176611 Paperback Feb 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
Price: £20.95
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In 1872, a young graduate of Yale University named Thomas Russell unearthed the bones of an 83,000,000-year-old dinosaur in western Kansas. The rare fossil, an avian dinosaur with teeth and flightless wings, proved that birds evolved from reptiles. More than a century later, Russell's great-granddaughter set out to retrace her ancestor's forgotten expedition. Part detective history, part memoir, For Want of Wings is Jill Hunting's captivating account of her journey into prehistory, national history, and family history.

In her quest to piece together fragments of her family's past, Hunting ends up crisscrossing the United States, from California to Connecticut. On her first trip across the Colorado Rockies to the fossil bed site near Russell Springs, Kansas, Hunting brings along her then twenty-six-year-old daughter. When the book opens, mother and daughter are both at crossroads, each seeking to understand the impact of personal decisions on the landscape of her life.

As Hunting ventures forward, she encounters unexpected resources, such as ten-year-old triplets who converse with her about dinosaurs and a Connecticut museum where portraits of her ancestors hang on the walls. Through lively descriptions of these visits, Hunting advances a view of history as nonlinear and full of unlikely coincidences.

For Want of Wings is also the carefully researched story of the least known of Yale's four expeditions into the American West, led by eminent paleontologist O. C. Marsh; the friendship between Russell's father and abolitionist John Brown; a portrait of a mother and daughter evolving in self-understanding; and an inquiry into matters of race in American history and the author's own family. In the end, all these pieces converge, like fragments of a fossil, to form an exquisitely patterned work of historical exploration.

Customer Reviews


A former food and wine writer and editor, Jill Hunting is the author of Finding Pete: Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in Vietnam. She lives in Pasadena, California.

By: Jill Hunting(Author)
244 pages, 21 plates with b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Media reviews

"A beautiful, intimate, and unforgettable journey [...] "
– Lynn Novick, documentary filmmaker

"Jill Hunting is a great storyteller and this is a truly great story. As she notes, Hesperornis is perhaps the least famous of the most important fossils ever discovered. Her book should change that. As Darwin emphasized, an intermediate form like Hesperornis helps us understand how evolution works in ways that are fundamental to understanding both the past and future of our planet."
– David K. Skelly, Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology, Yale University School of the Environment and Director, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

"Partly a rousing adventure in pursuit of scientific discovery, partly a series of intimate ruminations on self and history, For Want of Wings charms the reader to explore unexpected byways of knowledge as it crisscrosses the United States through time and space."
– Nancy F. Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Research Professor of American History at Harvard University and author of Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home between the Wars

"Jill Hunting has woven together an unforgettable tapestry of family history, fossil hunting, and high adventures in the American West. This finely honed and deeply original book reminds us that the past and the present aren't as far apart as they sometimes seem to be, and the lives of Hunting's Yale-centric ancestors have surprising resonances today. A fascinating read for both dinophiles and history lovers."
– Julia Flynn Siler, New York Times best-selling author of The White Devil's Daughter, Lost Kingdom, and The House of Mondavi

"In this engrossing memoir, Jill Hunting has woven her own family's past into the weft and the warp of American history. This rich tapestry truly contains multitudes, ranging from the founding of Skull and Bones at Yale University to the discovery of toothed birds in western Kansas, from antebellum debates over the abolition of slavery to the forced relocation of indigenous tribes on the Great Plains. It is emotionally complex and beautifully told, an absolute pleasure to read."
– Lukas Rieppel, Associate Professor of History, Brown University and author of Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

"Jill Hunting's For Want of Wings follows a delightfully discursive and personal path across important American history, tracking the footsteps of ancestors whose adventures in scientific discovery and political change resonate to this day. I avidly followed, feeling as enriched as did Jill and her daughter, May, out on the Great Plains and the Rockies. This is a warm and touching story showing the simultaneity of past and present – just my kind of book."
– David Haward Bain, author of Empire Express and The Old Iron Road

"A person's life is not just a thread from birth to death, but rather a complicated tapestry interwoven with the lives of many others. In the case of For Want of Wings, the author's careful research has restored the fabric surrounding the life of Thomas Hubbard Russell (1851–1916), her great-grandfather. Russell was a Yale graduate who made an important, but largely forgotten, scientific discovery in 1872 while collecting fossils with O. C. Marsh in the wilds of western Kansas, and then went on to become a respected medical surgeon in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. His life and the background of his once-in-a-lifetime discovery of a 'bird with teeth' make for a fascinating read."
– Michael J. Everhart, author of Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea and Adjunct Curator of Paleontology, Sternberg Museum of Natural History

"Jill Hunting's For Want of Wings is the enrapturing, wide-ranging, and thoughtful account of her great-grandfather's discovery of a rare dinosaur fossil in 1872. [...] Like digging through the 'sepulcher of chalk in a Kansas fossil bed,' the book begins with a few scant documents: rare historical photographs, clippings from an alumni magazine, and family hearsay. It uses these to illuminate [Tom] Russell's 'inconspicuous life.' The exploration then stretches from the dusty archives of the [Yale] Peabody Museum and journals of similar expeditions, to accounts of the Russell family's ties to early abolitionists, to colorful descriptions of life on the Kansas frontier and the region's natural history. [...]  For Want of Wings is a riveting and entertaining work of scientific history that also considers the value of connecting with one's family story."
Foreword Reviews

"Jill Hunting is a sleuth when it comes to finding details, and she has the talent to weave many threads together to create a coherent story that combines personal history, family history, national history, natural history, travel, American West, important characters, and more. She takes the reader on the search and adventure to tell the story of finding the first complete fossil of Hesperornis regalis. Hunting illuminates a long-buried facet of the paleontology and history of Kansas. It is a gem."
– Leo E. Oliva, author of Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail and Fort Larned on the Santa Fe Trail

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