Monday, March 25, 2013

What You're Not Reading, Day Four

Once upon a time, the world wasn't fully mapped, and there were monsters in jungles. Stories like King Kong and Tarzan came from somewhere, right? Right. In 1856, an extremely unlikely explorer, Paul Du Chaillu, walked into the African jungle to hunt a creature that had been considered the stuff of native legend, the gorilla. He was a kid, basically, and one of questionable lineage. His father was a merchant on the African coast but didn't have much of a relationship with his son. His mother was a mystery he held close to his vest. Three years after pushing into the interior, he returned with his prize.

Monte Reel's new book Between Man and Beast is the fascinating story of Du Chaillu and his quest to become a hero in the age of Victorian exploration. This isn't just a book about a man trying to find his place in the world. It's the history of a time when scientific knowledge was the ultimate achievement, when Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species and the hottest ticket in London was to the Royal Geographical Society. It's also a world in which status, wealth, and race mattered as much as accomplishment.

Du Chaillu hiked out of the jungle with the carcasses of gorillas, a major scientific discovery of the time and a link in the primate evolutionary chain leading to humans. He took his show to Broadway--where else?--and the exhibition in New York instantly made Du Chaillu a celebrity. The part of King Kong in which the giant ape is displayed to the gasping gawkers in the theater? That's straight from Du Chaillu's story. From the US he went to England and found himself hailed by the Royal Geographical Society, and he thought he'd arrived.  The explorer, though, didn't have the social credentials or the experience to remain atop the Victorian viper pit of would-be explorers.

Between Man and Beast reads like Erik Larson's books, a multi-layered popular history of a man, a quest, a society, and an age. Scientific theory was turned on its head, and reactions were extreme (evolution led to the emergence of Christian fundamentalism). Great explorer or fraud? Adventure, history, violent critters, danger, scandal--good times. Good read.

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