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

Hello, I am Jennifer Kassebaum, Owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove, Kansas.

For my first review for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club, I have selected a University of Oklahoma Press publication titled FOR WANT OF WINGS: A Bird with Teeth and A Dinosaur in the Family (2022) by author Jill Hunting. This book is about Hunting’s great-grandfather, Thomas Russell, who discovered 83-million-year-old dinosaur bones in western Kansas during an expedition with the legendary paleontologist O C Marsh in 1872.

This remarkable discovery was rarely discussed by Hunting’s family, so she set out to investigate what brought her grandfather – who was not a paleontologist – to western Kansas with Marsh. At the time of his discovery, Russell was a recent Yale University graduate. After the expedition, Russell would return to New Haven that fall to attend Yale Medical School, where he would become a respected surgeon and a professor of clinical surgery.

Part biography, part memoir, this book leaves the reader delighted to have gained a greater knowledge about paleontology, the settlement of Kansas, and the author’s interesting ancestors. The author’s great, great grandfather, General William Huntington Russell, was an abolitionist and a founding member of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society. As we learn in the book, General Russell was acquainted with John Brown and worked to bring Kansas into the Union as a Free State.

Hunting’s title of the book, FOR WANT OF WINGS, has two reference points. One reference point is a nod to the evolutionary change of Hesperornis regalis – the dinosaur that Thomas Russell found near Russell Springs in 1872 – from a bird whose wings became useless for flight. Hunting writes:  “Hesperornis regalis could probably propel itself on land only by scooting on its belly or walking awkwardly, because its wings were vestigial and virtually useless.” So “for want of wings” Hesperornis regalis was a bird that could not fly.

For me, an equally intriguing reference point is the author’s musings as a parent. As a parent, Hunting contemplates what her great-grandfather’s parents may have thought about their son’s travel with O C Marsh to western Kansas in 1872, and her parents’ concerns about her brother Pete’s involvement with USAID in Vietnam where he was the first civilian casualty of the Vietnam War in 1965. The author muses “What of our sons’ and daughters’ wings? If we hold our children back, hoping to shield them from every risk and danger, how will they ever learn to fly?”

As part of the author’s investigation of her great-grandfather’s notable discovery, Hunting interviews such notable Kansans as Leo Oliva, President of the SFTA, and representatives of the Sternberg Museum in Hays. Hunting travels with her daughter, May, to Logan County Kansas to view the land where Thomas Russell discovered Hesperornis regalis. In the book, we learn that May is a founding member of StepItUp.org, a climate change organization that was championed by Bill McKibben and which is now 350.org, –ironically, an organization that advocates less dependence on fossil fuels.

The author has made repeated trips back to Kansas. Her fondness for the state is apparent. She recounts that her great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Russell, did not become famous for his important discovery of a notable Kansas fossil or for his medical practice, but was described as a “man to tie to.” Readers can find that same steadfastness and intelligence in Jill Hunting and her book, FOR WANT OF WINGS.

© 2022 Jennifer M. Kassebaum

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