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Following the publication of her article on Harkness in The Washington Post, Croke discovered hundreds of letters from Harknesss 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 Crokes exotic story.
Vicki Constantine Croke has been exploring animal life for more than two decades--tracking the fossa in Madagascar, polar bears in the Arctic Circle, and Tasmanian devils in, of course, Tasmania.
She now covers animal issues for WBUR-FM, Boston's NPR news station, on air (Here and Now) and on WBUR's The Wild Life online at thewildlife.wbur.org. Her work there earned a 2013 regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
She is the author of The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal, The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos--Past, Present and Future, and Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II.
Vicki has worked on nature documentaries for Disney and for the A&E channel and anchored The Secret Life of Animals on NECN-TV. She also wrote The Boston Globe's "Animal Beat" column for thirteen years, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Sunday Telegraph, Time, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, National Wildlife, and Discover magazine, among others.
In the 1930's America was much in need of heroes. The Great Depression had settled over the United States, and poor out-of-work people were everywhere. The election of President Franklin Roosevelt boosted the nation's collective morale, along with Seabiscuit, the champion racehorse, with his owner, trainer and jockey Red Pollard of course. Then came the now all-but-forgotten Ruth Hardness, who is 1936, accomplished the impossible by bringing back to the United States the first ever live panda from the dangerous territry where China borders Tibet.
Vickie Constantine Croke in THE LADY AND THE PANDA recounts this wonderful saga of a determined New York socialite, who after the death of her young husband on a similar mission in China, takes up where he left off, invests her entire inheritance on her quest and surprises practically everyone when she brings back Su-Lin for all the world to see and adore. The panda takes up residence in Chicago's Brookfield Zoo where, the author says in her "Preface" that he drew "more than 53,000 visitors when first displayed at the Brookfield--a single-day tally the zoo has never again matched." Such famous people as Helen Keller, Shirley Temple, Sophie Tucker and the Dionne quintuplets fell under Su-Lin's spell. He was insured by Lloyd's of London.
Ms. Harkness is a bigger than life character. The author tells us that though short in height, Harkness always appeared to be much taller than she was. She is quoted as saying that the two things she hated most were going to bed at night and getting up in the morning. In addition to her passion for pandas, she was besotted with beautiful clothes--she was a dressmaker by profession-- cigarettes, alcohol, fine food and late-night parties.Read more ›
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The West first learned of the existence of the panda when the French missionary Pere Armand David saw a panda skin while visiting remote western regions of China in 1869. For nearly fifty years after his report, European and American explorers sought the rare animal without success, only buying second-hand hides. As late as the 1920s the scientific community questioned whether pandas were extinct or mythical, according to Vicki Constantine Croke in her book The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal.
By the time Ruth Harkness arrived in China to attend to the remains of her late husband's expedition in 1936, several big game hunters had sent panda skins to museums, but no one had succeeded in bringing a live panda out of the country. Her husband had gone to China to try, but died of cancer in a Shanghai hospital without ever seeing one. No one thought a former dress maker and New York socialite could succeed where seasoned hunters had failed. They did not know Ruth's idea. They never even thought of packing a baby bottle and formula.
In The Lady and the Panda, Croke tells the story of Harkness, her three expeditions, and the international acclaim that she received for bringing two pandas to the Brookfield Zoo. The journeys were difficult. When available, Harkness and her team traveled by boat, train, plane, auto, or rickshaw; often they hiked up steep paths to reach mountainous forest reserves. With supporters and rivals in the field, she dodged Chinese authorities and the invading Japanese army. In time she came to the conclusion that the expeditions were endangering the pandas and dishonored the land that she had come to love.
Readers who enjoy natural and political history and those who enjoy adventure stories will enjoy this book.
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I loved the story of Ruth Harkness, her beloved China, and those unforgettable pandas. I live in DC, which is currently caught up in panda fever as we're watching little Tai Shan grow, so I enjoyed reading this book and totally immersing myself in pandas.
The Lady and the Panda is the true story of a Manhattan socialite who carried on her beloved late husband's quest - to be the first to introduce the world to the giant panda. The young dress designer left NY and, over the course of several expeditions, she found adventure, beauty, love, meaning, and - yes - pandas in the wilds of China. Harkness did indeed bring the first panda to the West, and America fell in love with the baby Su-Lin. After making his new home at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Su-Lin drew up to 53,000 people A DAY to see the adorable and exotic black-and-white bear.
The story could have ended there and been a fairly typical adventure/travelogue detailing yet another veiled story of America exploiting another culture. But Ruth Harkness lived an even more interesting life than that. In the midst of China's war with Japan - the outset of World War II - and "panda fever," with hundreds of explorers killing and trapping pandas across China's previously unspoiled wilderness, Harkness made a heart-breaking realization. Her quest and international popularity had in fact hurt the panda, threatening their very existence. She then did the unthinkable, returning a captured panda to the wild, and for the rest of her life became a leading voice for conservation.
Croke's book was a wild ride, as Harkenss herself was a larger-than-life character. I loved the glimpse of the hard-drinking, hard-living expatriate community in China, the poetic descriptions of both the beautiful land and people, and the insights into the relationships between zoos, money and "explorers" of the day.