Book Review: The Lady And The Panda

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

This book is an interesting one, because it occurs at a vitally important time, in the 1930’s, when live pandas first entered the Western world from China. The woman responsible for bringing a live panda to the West for the first time was a widow named Ruth Harkness who, on her first trip to China, managed to take in a baby panda and keep it alive through some sort of frustrated maternal instincts, and, at least according to the author, manage to use these instincts and insights to know more about how to keep pandas alive in captivity than contemporary zookeepers who insisted on feeding pandas with cooked vegetables rather than giving them crunchy foods to chew on. By and large, this book is an interesting one, though it is at the same time a deeply puzzling read in that the author seeks to frame the book as a nonfiction novel by avoiding the sort of sourcing that many readers will expect in order to maintain a fluid narrative of the life of his subject as well as the context of that all too short life in the dramatic period before and during World War II.

This book is about three hundred pages long and it is divided into fourteen chapters. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements section that are effusive in their praise of others, disarmingly so. After that comes a shocking beginning of the death in Shanghai of Ruth Harknesses’ husband Bill, who had incurable tumors and had failed in his quest for the panda in two years of exploration in China (1). After that the author discusses Ruth Harkness’ inheritance of this expedition (2) and how she gained the whip hand in her dealings with others who were contemptuous of her (3). After that comes a narrative of her trip to Chengdu (4), a tale of her rivalries as well as her romance with Quentin Young (5), and her successful find of a live baby panda for her o take care of (6). A discussion of the poisonous rivalry between Smith and Harkness as well as Harknesses trouble in getting the baby panda out of China (7) precedes a narrative of the panda she brought as the animal of the century (8). This is then followed by a discussion of Harkness’ return to a Shanghai in war in 1937 (9), her attempt to skirt around the conflict by going from Saigon to Chengdu (10), and her struggle to deal with a lonely high-altitude hell for months waiting for the chance to find a panda (11). This is followed by the thrill of her return (12) again to the states and then a brief discussion of her return to China one last time (13), as well as the call to return a panda to the wild that would have been unhappy in captivity (14), and a discussion of the sad wreck of Harkness’ remaining years before an early death from the effects of her alcoholism in an epilogue, after which there are notes and an index.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this book is the way that the author manages to include a great deal of speculation on the psychological life of the book’s subject. It seems quite likely that this book, although the author claims everything to be true, is really a book that includes a large amount of intuition and guessing and surmising of what is plausible or likely rather than strictly being limited to that which is certainly true. Nonfiction novels as this one tend to struggle with the question of what is certainly true as a genre, and this book shares that general tendency. Fortunately, the book is easy enough to appreciate even if it the author is clearly a partisan of the subject and the book does not quite read in the way one would expect a book of this type to read. One gets the feeling, though, that this is intentionally done, and it is by no means a bad thing even if it is sometimes to be regretted that the author does not clearly separate that which is true from that which was only reported to be true by Harkness or someone else in letters or other text, and that which the author surmises and interprets and guesses to be true. If these problems make this book a bit less than ideal as a historical or nonfictional source, they do not detract from its pleasant narrative style.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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