Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

Liveright: Norton. Feb. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781631496028. $25.95. BIOG/HIST
Equal parts memoir and investigative reporting, the latest from Frank (creative writing, Northern Michigan Univ.; Preparing the Ghost) is a page-turning tale of suspense. During a trip to his wife’s native South Africa to spread their child’s ashes at Big Hole, an underground mine turned tourist attraction, Frank decided to learn more about the history of the mine. This curiosity leads him to 13-year-old mineworker Msizi and his pigeon Bartholomew. Through Msizi, the author learns how mineworkers sneak trained carrier pigeons onto mine property, affix diamonds to their feet or wings, and send them into the air to fly to worker's homes. Frank quickly learns that not all pigeons survive—some are weighed down by diamonds while others are confiscated by mine security. With novelistic writing, Frank masterfully weaves a fast-paced history of South Africa's Diamond Coast, and the impact of De Beers controlling both the land and the government. His thorough reporting on mineworkers, their pigeons, and towns that have struggled in the wake of mine closures makes for compelling reading. The author excels in allowing people to speak for themselves, adding personal touches to a history of greed and trauma.
VERDICT Frank writes a fascinating story of grief and history that will draw readers in from the first page. Must-read narrative nonfiction.
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