Top positive review
“Just” a woman abandons NYC society and has an adventure
Reviewed in the United States on August 13, 2014
I love reading about the exploits of interesting people traversing parts of the world I’ve never seen, and this exuberant biography of a Manhattan dress designer turned international explorer held me rapt with one caveat that I’ll explain at the end.
Ruth Harkness did not come from a wealthy, sophisticated family, but with determination, a flair for design, and a savvy intelligence that allowed her to read people Harkness managed to create a cosmopolitan New York City life for herself, even in the midst of the 1930’s Great Depression. She fell in love with then married a rich boy adventurer who hoped to be the first to bring a live panda out of China and into the US. When he died in the process, Harkness surprised all her high fashion, socialite friends by deciding she would be the one to take on his mission.
Harkness ended up loving China, especially the wild, rugged, mountainous, densely forested, far western areas where the giant panda makes its home, and it’s thrilling to read about her rough and tumble travels, the variety of local people she spent time with, and the off-the-map exotic places she visited. But Harkness didn’t avoid China’s urban areas entirely. There was plenty of Euro-American drinking and partying when she stopped in international cities like Shanghai to gather the team, funds, and provisions needed for her venture, but unlike many contemporary Westerners she respected the Chinese culture and treated her Chinese expedition guide like a partner, even briefly having a love affair with him.
When Harkness successfully brought a baby panda out of China much was made of the fact that though she was “just a woman” she succeeded where many men had failed--so far the men had been shooting pandas and bringing back their pelts. Harkness treated “her” panda with great care, trying to understand its needs and sacrificing her own comforts, but the caveat I mentioned in the first sentence is that it makes me uncomfortable and sad to read about a baby animal being taken from its mother and native habitat to be put in a zoo. Harkness agonized about this too, even releasing back into the wild another panda she captured.
Other than that, I totally fell under the spell of this lively, enthusiastically written book. The author had access to a trove of personal letters written by Harkness, and retraced some of Harkness’s journey herself, so while reading it was easy to imagine I was right there, experiencing it all myself.