A Review of the book Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skullduggery written by Jennie Erin Smith
When this book was released in January 2011, Bryan Christy’s book The Lizard King had already been out for over a year. Touching on much of the same history of reptile smuggling and how many herp species ended up in America, Christy told the story of Ray Van Nostrand, Sr., his son Mike, and the federal agent, one Chip Bepler, who sought to bring their export & smuggling empire down. After reading The Lizard King, I soon added it to my herpetological library, and when word that another book was underway involving the same subject matter, I was elated and couldn’t wait to read it as well. It was told that this book, Stolen World, would focus on the stories of Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield.
However, rumors began to fly that Mrs. Smith’s book held a rather distorted view of the reptile industry and many members of the herp community were discouraging their fellow hobbyists from reading it, certainly not supporting Ms. Smith’s career by purchasing the book. Many of the book’s detractors had not even read the book themselves, but still fervently spoke out against it. Tom Crutchfield in particular was very displeased with how the author portrayed him, and had this to say in a public online reptile forum (click in image for larger view):
NOTE: I have personally listened to Urban Jungle Radio’s interview with Jennie Erin Smith as well as reviewed the promo video before that program first aired. Ms. Smith did not make any of those statements on that radio program. The quote was actually taken from The Internet Review for Books review of this book. Consequently, their blatant implication that she did make those statements is a lie.
Now, ordinarily I am the kind of person who will just read the book for myself to form my opinion. However, I will admit that early on, I was taken in with all the fuss and hoopla over the book, and among other reasons, I procrastinated on reading Stolen World. Eventually though, many months later, I decided, the heck with everyone who chose not to read the book over a few peoples’ opinions, and I would just rent the blasted thing from the library. I did, and I must say, that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than I did reading The Lizard King. So without divulging too much about it, here are my thoughts:
I would first like to say that, if you are a herper, I definitely think that you should read this book when you get the opportunity. It does offer a detailed narrative, albeit a slanted one, of part of the reptile industry’s history; specifically, how many species of questionably legality ended up in America, and the somewhat indescribable drive that many reptile lovers of that day in age had, yearning for the obscure, the rare and the “unobtainable”.
I have always been taught that there are at least two sides to every story, and the narrative in the pages of this book is no exception. Herpers rant about how it is mostly a biography of Hank Molt, and the events told are predominantly from his perspective. For the most part, they are correct. The events described in the pages of this book are told through the perspective of Hank Molt. However, if Jennie Erin Smith and sat on someone else’s couch for a few years and picked their brains about these events, and Stolen World had been written mostly from that person’s perspective, would the book be any more or less accurate or factual? Just food for thought…
In regards to Tom Crutchfield’s reaction to the book, all I can say is this: I do not know any of these people personally. I do not know Hank Molt. I do not know Tom Crutchfield. I do not know Anson Wong, or any of the other characters of the book. Nor do I personally know the author herself, Jennie Erin Smith. All I know of these people are through the pages of these books, on internet forums, and the occasional interviews via radio or magazine. I’m not going to nit-pick the precise accuracy of all the facts presented in the book, but once again, take into account the story’s perspective. The Tom Crutchfield depicted in Stolen World is predominantly the Tom Crutchfield seen through the eyes of Hank Molt. Maybe Mr. Crutchfield has good enough reason to take offense, but personally, I still don’t feel it is reason enough to tell everyone not to form their own opinions and read the darn book themselves.
As mentioned earlier, there has been much controversy surrounding this book, as many herpers claim that the author has painted the entire herp community in a negative light. Curiously enough, many of the book’s detractors haven’t even read it, and I’ve said all I say about that. But after reading it myself, I personally do not think that Ms. Smith is guilty of intentionally tarnishing the image of all reptile lovers.
However, I will say that it’s possible for a non-herper to get that impression. But once again, you must take into consideration the perspective of the story: i.e. Hank Molt. Without divulging too much of the book, Hank Molt and the company he seems to attract in his lengthy career in working with reptiles (I use the term “working” loosely) are at best, questionable and at worst, downright unsavory. I’ll be the first to admit that the reptile industry can attract its fair share of weirdos, but still, these shady characters are only a small fraction of the herp community. Mr. Molt and his “entourage” of cohorts are remnants of a bygone age of reptile smuggling and skullduggery. I can personally vouch that the vast majority of the herpers I know are well-put together, professional, responsible, and very amicable; in a word, “normal.” So I would certainly tell any non-herper that has read Stolen World not to judge all of the reptile community by the actions of the characters in its pages.
There have also been some heated discussions on Jennie Erin Smith herself; in particular, her own views of the pet trade. There have been insinuations that she is an outspoken animal rights activist (every herper’s enemy), or that she obtained some of the information for her book through illegal channels. What do I have to say? Nothing, because I really don’t care. I have plenty of books in my personal library from various different authors. I’m certain that if I dug a little, I would find enough reason to boycott every single one of them based on a conflicting political opinion or viewpoints on animal welfare, or their religious beliefs, or whatever. I don’t have time for all that. Regardless of Mrs. Smith’s personal opinions or how she got her information, it doesn’t affect her ability to write a good book. And that is what Stolen World is.
In closing, I think Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skullduggery is a must-read for anyone interested in reptiles, the pet trade or wildlife conservation in general. My only recommendation is to take it with a grain of salt. Remember that you are reading only one side of a big story.
- Michael D. Crabtree