Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The Lady and the Panda," A Book Review (A Mama Kat Writing Prompt)

You may know that I usually "choose" my Mama Kat prompt via This week, in all candor, I am going for "easiest." And although this prompt is pretty easy:  Book review time! Some people STILL read books…share one of your more recent reads and tell us what you thought! it's going to require me to (gasp!) retain the memory of something I have read recently. I listen to so many audiobooks that I fear I treat them as white noise and fail to retain details. But I'll dig deep in the memory bank and tell you about a recent audiobook that I got from Paperback Swap.

The recent read (or listen, if you don't believe audiobooks qualify as "reading) that comes to mind is "The Lady and the Panda."  This book, by Vicky Constantine Croke, chronicles the efforts of Ruth Harkness to bring the first live giant panda to the United States, back in the 1930's. The quest had originally belonged to her husband, but he died in China while searching for a panda, and she decided to make the goal her own. Ruth Harkness was not a rugged adventurer type. Picture a Hilton or Kardashian trudging off into the wild in search of an animal. Harkness did have the brilliant idea to snatch a baby panda instead of a full grown panda - so much easier to transport, you know? One of her serendipitous ideas was the purchase of a baby bottle and formula before heading into the remote, mountainous, China-Tibet border region.

Along the way, Harkness indulged in sexual liberties that were shocking for that era. She had at least one lover and morphed from her fashion designer persona to nondescript pants and shirts befitting a backwoods explorer.

Ruth Harkness and Su Lin
Source link: Living On Earth

I spent much of the time listening to this book marveling at the differences between the 1930's and now. Even in Shanghai, ripples from the developing unrest in Europe were felt. It is an understatement to say that Ruth was an easily minimized upstart, a woman in an insular society of male explorers. She showed them, returning triumphantly to America with panda Su Lin in tow. Later, she returned to China and secured a second panda, Mei-Mei. Mei-Mei's move from China to the United States didn't end as triumphantly as Su Lin's.

What stuck out at me from this book? First, Ruth Harkness's willingness to take risks. You could argue that they were risks born of ignorance, but she had a goal and she met it despite odds that were stacked heavily against her. Second, the entire philosophy of animal management (when those animals are some kind of "attraction") has dramatically evolved over the decades since Su Lin touched down on US soil. Third, I learned so much about giant pandas, including the fact that it is hard to tell baby girl pandas apart from baby boy pandas. (Su Lin was, it was discovered later, a male panda.)

Lastly, the image of the baby panda being snatched away from its mother at the age of nine weeks tugged at my consciousness the whole time. I wonder what (if anything) Su Lin felt/thought in its panda brain and heart.

The end of the book brought things full circle in a way I did not anticipate. I can't tell you  because it would detract from your experience if you choose to read the book.

In summary, "The Lady and the Panda" informed me, entertained me, and challenged me. Three things that the best books always do.


1 comment:

Sadie Dear said...

I applaud you usual daring-ness: using a random number generator! But I think I may try it myself sometimes. =) I don't get a chance to read very often (much to my dismay) but I still may check this book out!