Friday, October 5, 2007


In between all of my other activities (most of them less pleasureable), I've been reading Vicki Constance Croke's The Lady and the Panda, the incredible tale of larger-than-life Ruth Harkness, the first Westerner to capture a panda alive!

Harkness's tale makes an amazing arc, and proves my theory that among us, some people just have a destiny. She was born in 1900 and was a flapper, dress designer and all-around and wild woman. She met her husband, an adventurer and all-around wild man, in New York City. He was the one who was attempting to capture a panda, an animal so obscure at the time that Ruth originally thought they were mispronouncing the word "panther". Sadly, he died in China in his quest. Ruth made a bold decision: rather than live frugally on the money he had left (a fairly substantial sum, but not enough to support her in the style in which she was accustomed), she would travel to China and fulfill his quest.

Amazingly, and against all odds, she did. In the process, she took an epic journey to parts of China that even most Chinese did not venture to. She fell in love again, she made friends and enemies, she became the toast of several cities worldwide, she gained a deep understanding of an alien culture, she got to see sights unseen by Western eyes and most Chinese eyes. In the process, it both changes her, and makes her more herself. Her story is gripping, and the lesson she draws from her final journey, and the decision she makes as a result, actually brought tears to my eyes.

It took me quite a while to read this one, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I did! Vicki Constance Croke is an excellent writer, and makes much out of an already-lively tale. The book helped me gain a greater understanding of the current predicament of the pandas, too. Their species has such a specific niche that they'd be very vulnerable. I think I'd heard this before, but reading the descriptions of Harkness trying to reach that particular, remote corner of China really brought it home. This book is a must-read for anyone who's interested in pandas, China, animal collection, or spiritual journeys. I am going to try to get Constance-Croke's other book, The Ark, about the history of the zoo. If this is any indication, it should be a good read.

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