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I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson (Kodansha Globe) Paperback – August 14, 1997
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Osa Johnson's travel adventures and explorations come across as vibrantly today as they did when they were written in 1940. They're richer now with the added perspective of history, and the added wealth of Martin Johnson's photographs of charging elephants, reposing lions, and head hunters roasting heads, marshmallow-like, over a campfire. The life the Johnsons led was nothing like the life Osa expected. From 1917 to 1937 she and Martin were visiting and filming cannibals in the New Hebrides, orangutans in Borneo, and the rich gamut of wildlife available on safari in Kenya and the Congo. Osa led a life the likes of which won't be seen again, and she tells a good story, too.
"books of adventure are so numerous….[But] this one is unique. It has the human quality of a novel and the permanence of social history." —Katherine Woods, The New York Times
"Tells the whole story unaffectedly and with a simple charm that is highly engaging. It belongs on any list of Americana, for the Johnsons were as American as Davy Crockett." —Joseph Wood Krutch, The Nation
"A pleasant, forthright…exciting book." —Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker"It makes good reading…at this dark hour, as good an ‘escape story’ as you are apt to run into for some time." —Atlantic Monthly
"I MARRIED ADVENTURE is a fine book on many counts…A good travel book, a good adventure book, a good book about animals, a good book on photography, and , best of all…a good human story about two extremely likable people, told by one of them with simplicity, humor, [and] warmth." —Rose Feld, Books
"It isn’t just the animal-lover who will cherish this story. Anyone who likes a thrilling tale (a true one, too) with a plucky, nervy, cheerful, and charming hero and heroine is all set. I MARRIED ADVENTURE is as rare and real as the people who made it possible."—Olga Owens, Boston Transcript
"The reader is impressed with the tremendous industriousness of these two people, their physical endurance, their patience, their understanding of animals and natives, and their love for each other….[The] old and young will enjoy this book. It is splendidly illustrated." —M.N. Baker, Library Journal
"Every page of her book is readable and exciting: the photographs are plentiful and have all the dramatic quality that we are used to in the camera work of the author and her husband." —Manchester Guardian
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The narrative is definitely dated. Osa is a product of her time and environment, and as such, she holds some views that would be extremely offensive today. I cringed frequently reading her descriptions of various natives, although it did help to read that she regarded herself, as a woman, as an equally lesser being. (Of course, I don't mean that women really are lesser beings -- or natives, for that matter -- only that her views on race, class and gender meshed with her contemporaries across the board, and she wasn't just a horrible racist.)
Over and over again, I thought that Pixar must have grabbed the idea for Up from this book. The Johnson's plane is called the Spirit of Adventure, Jack London's boat is the snark and their hideaway in Africa sounds suspiciously like Paradise Falls (which I know is based on a location in South America, but I'm speaking more to the spirit of the thing.)
For a good, old-fashioned adventure story, I Married Adventure is a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
The book is a window into a very different era. The Johnsons were products of their time, and some of their viewpoints will bother a few readers. They were not bigots, and in fact appear to me to be rather enlightened for the time, but some of her descriptions of native peoples seem slightly condescending. I may be reading something that isn't there. Some of their practices while exploring and photographing new places would now be totally unacceptable--Stirring up inoffensive animals to get some action for the cameras, or casually introducing an alien plant (watercress) into Africa. Again, these are products of the views of that day, rather than something to condemn.
The book does have some weaknesses: The biggest one is that this is (effectively) "The Authorized Biography". Many problems and difficulties are glossed over. I read in the modern Introduction that Martin continually struggled with health problems during his adventures, but there is no hint of that in the text. Because the book covers so much ground, in many cases the description of their adventures is scanty, and I wanted more detail. And I suspect there's more to the story in some cases. So I am going to find some other books on the Johnsons and try to learn more about them.
Perhaps that's the strongest thing to say about the book--That it left me wanting to know more, and inspired to find it out! I'm also going to visit the museum in Kansas dedicated to their work.