Thursday, June 4, 2015

O.o.O.C.: "The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal" by Vicki Constantine Croke

Out of Orbit Critiques are the reviews on books outside my usual genres. In The Lady and the Panda's case, this book is a posthumous biography of Ruth Harkness.

When I started reading this, I was expecting a mildly engaging biography with maybe a little about pandas and China. Little did I know, this book tells you a lot about China and pandas, and while the story is about Ruth, it is also the story of how the Giant Pandas first came to zoos. Ruth may get the main plot, but there isn't much about her early and later stages of life- in other words, it isn't your typical biography. You have to want to read about pandas to enjoy this book. But really- who doesn't like pandas?

Appalling Panda Cuteness From GifSoup

The Plot: (As Seen on Goodreads)
'Here is the astonishing true story of Ruth Harkness, the Manhattan bohemian socialite who, against all but impossible odds, trekked to Tibet in 1936 to capture the most mysterious animal of the day: a bear that had for countless centuries lived in secret in the labyrinth of lonely cold mountains. In The Lady and the Panda, Vicki Constantine Croke gives us the remarkable account of Ruth Harkness and her extraordinary journey, and restores Harkness to her rightful place along with Sacajawea, Nellie Bly, and Amelia Earhart as one of the great woman adventurers of all time.
'Ruth was the toast of 1930s New York, a dress designer newly married to a wealthy adventurer, Bill Harkness. Just weeks after their wedding, however, Bill decamped for China in hopes of becoming the first Westerner to capture a giant panda–an expedition on which many had embarked and failed miserably. Bill was also to fail in his quest, dying horribly alone in China and leaving his widow heartbroken and adrift. And so Ruth made the fateful decision to adopt her husband’s dream as her own and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.
'It was not easy. Indeed, everything was against Ruth Harkness. In decadent Shanghai, the exclusive fraternity of white male explorers patronized her, scorned her, and joked about her softness, her lack of experience and money. But Ruth ignored them, organizing, outfitting, and leading a bare-bones campaign into the majestic but treacherous hinterlands where China borders Tibet. As her partner she chose Quentin Young, a twenty-two-year-old Chinese explorer as unconventional as she was, who would join her in a romance as torrid as it was taboo.
'Traveling across some of the toughest terrain in the world–nearly impenetrable bamboo forests, slick and perilous mountain slopes, and boulder-strewn passages–the team raced against a traitorous rival, and was constantly threatened by hordes of bandits and hostile natives. The voyage took months to complete and cost Ruth everything she had. But when, almost miraculously, she returned from her journey with a baby panda named Su Lin in her arms, the story became an international sensation and made the front pages of newspapers around the world. No animal in history had gotten such attention. And Ruth Harkness became a hero.
'Drawing extensively on American and Chinese sources, including diaries, scores of interviews, and previously unseen intimate letters from Ruth Harkness, Vicki Constantine Croke has fashioned a captivating and richly textured narrative about a woman ahead of her time. Part Myrna Loy, part Jane Goodall, by turns wisecracking and poetic, practical and spiritual, Ruth Harkness is a trailblazing figure. And her story makes for an unforgettable, deeply moving adventure.'

Amazingly, capturing a panda was not really Ruth Harkness's dream- it was her husband's. When he died before he could complete the task himself, she decided to go to China and try her hand at finding the semi-mythical beast. By the time she set out to find one, only bodies of the dead pandas had been brought back as proof of the animal's existence- the panda was the stuff of cryptozoology until about 1869, when the West realized their existence with the finding of a panda skin.

Although typically you can expect some degree of racism in any dealings with people of different nationalities in historic bios, this book was relatively clean of that, at least in the case of Ruth Harkness. She did make some very questionable choices later in the book, but during the majority of it, her sensibilities were almost modern. She was very much a woman 'before her time' throughout the entire book. There is one offensive term (coolie) used throughout the book, but I believe it was used to give you the character of that period in time.

This book really makes you think about how animals came to be in zoos, and how much they suffered during the times of the first zoos and menageries. Some of the descriptions made me nauseous as a 'tame' animal owner and nature lover. I personally have always preferred seeing wild animals in the wild, but realize that most modern city dwellers would never get to see them in person without the aid of zoos, which are (thankfully) much more humane than they used to be (depending on the facility).

The Lady and the Panda was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. Not only was Ruth Harkness a female pioneer in exploration, she was also a fashionista, a widow, and someone who you really wouldn't think would be willing to climb steep hills in order to find a panda. Although we don't get much of a picture of Ruth in her earlier and later stages in life, The Lady and the Panda makes you want to rethink your next trip to the zoo. If you like pandas and adventure stories that may have the occasional slow point to them, I recommend this book for your next read.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a story about pandas and the woman who brought them to our attention.

Content: Ages 16+ for mentions of illicit affairs, mild derogatory terms, and lots of panda-monium.

Page Count: 294 pages of the actual book, with an additional 81 pages of references/acknowledgements, for a total of 372 pages.

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