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.