three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
user_rating: 
0

The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal

A-LadyPandaRuth McCombs Harkness was the model Jazz-Age wife: a flapper, dress designer, and bubbling socialite. When her husband of two weeks passed away on a panda-hunting expedition to China, she displayed her emancipated streak. She jetted off and took up his hunt. Hacking through bamboo forests between China and Tibet, she had her husband’s safari gear re-cut to her size and fell into a romance with her Chinese guide. She also managed to do what no one before her had done: she returned to San Francisco with Su-Lin, the first live giant panda to grace American shores.
Random House. 372 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0375507833

New York Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Croke gives us a heroine who’s everything a lot of modern people admire: slightly dissolute, brave in heartbreak, uninhibited and kind." Sally Eckhoff

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Croke makes the most of this rich material. She tells the story well, provides an abundance of panda lore and touches on all the relevant issues—environmental awareness, cultural imperialism, racism, sexism—without heavy-handedness." Charles Matthews

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In writing this extensively researched book, Croke does her best to help Harkness take her place among Amelia Earhart and Sacagawea as one of history’s great female explorers. Ironically, the chief characteristic that seems to make Harkness remarkable is that she wasn’t an explorer." Andrew Meier

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"She summons just enough romance, rivalry, victory, disappointment, and redemption to make this book reflect a woman who wore lipstick in the jungle. Like its heroine, it stakes everything on exotic glamour." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Following the publication of her article on Harkness in The Washington Post, Croke discovered hundreds of letters from Harkness’s trip to China. Armed with this correspondence, as well as hours of new interviews conducted for the project, Croke, the "Animal Beat" writer for the Boston Globe and author of The Modern Ark (1997), has produced this well-researched, well-written tale. The Lady and the Panda succeeds as a grand adventure and celebration of an overlooked independent woman whom Croke describes as "part Myrna Loy, part Jane Goodall." Critics tease out themes of early 20th-century gender and culture issues as well as a cautionary tale about the hazards of exploration for endangered species. Only some complaints of overly purple prose mar the generally positive embrace of Croke’s exotic story.