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The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures…
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The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer… (2005)

by Vicki Constantine Croke

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I love reading about the exploits of interesting people traversing parts of the world I’ve never seen, and this exuberant biography of a Manhattan dress designer turned international explorer held me rapt with one caveat that I’ll explain at the end.

Ruth Harkness did not come from a wealthy, sophisticated family, but with determination, a flair for design, and a savvy intelligence that allowed her to read people Harkness managed to create a cosmopolitan New York City life for herself, even in the midst of the 1930’s Great Depression. She fell in love with then married a rich boy adventurer who hoped to be the first to bring a live panda out of China and into the US. When he died in the process, Harkness surprised all her high fashion, socialite friends by deciding she would be the one to take on his mission.

Harkness ended up loving China, especially the wild, rugged, mountainous, densely forested, far western areas where the giant panda makes its home, and it’s thrilling to read about her rough and tumble travels, the variety of local people she spent time with, and the off-the-map exotic places she visited. But Harkness didn’t avoid China’s urban areas entirely. There was plenty of Euro-American drinking and partying when she stopped in international cities like Shanghai to gather the team, funds, and provisions needed for her venture, but unlike many contemporary Westerners she respected the Chinese culture and treated her Chinese expedition guide like a partner, even briefly having a love affair with him.

When Harkness successfully brought a baby panda out of China much was made of the fact that though she was “just a woman” she succeeded where many men had failed--so far the men had been shooting pandas and bringing back their pelts. Harkness treated “her” panda with great care, trying to understand its needs and sacrificing her own comforts, but the caveat I mentioned in the first sentence is that it makes me uncomfortable and sad to read about a baby animal being taken from its mother and native habitat to be put in a zoo. Harkness agonized about this too, even releasing back into the wild another panda she captured.

Other than that, I totally fell under the spell of this lively, enthusiastically written book. The author had access to a trove of personal letters written by Harkness, and retraced some of Harkness’s journey herself, so while reading it was easy to imagine I was right there, experiencing it all myself. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Aug 13, 2014 |
Lady and the Panda tells the story of Ruth Harkness and the pandas she captured in China in the mid 1930s. Harkness was the first person to bring a live panda to the US. Su-Lin was a young cub at the time, and Ruth bottle fed him and carried him around in a basket to press conferences and various social engagements, before he settled into his zoo home in Chicago. I found details like this fun and endearing and was fascinated by this very unexpected explorer's travails. I was less engaged in details about China's history and architecture. I recommend this to anyone interested in this period of China's history, adventurous travel, and/or conservation issues. ( )
1 vote ChickLitFan | Mar 11, 2011 |
Too much lady, not enough panda. ( )
1 vote theanalogdivide | Dec 1, 2009 |
Too much lady, not enough panda. ( )
  theanalogdivide | Dec 1, 2009 |
Too much lady, not enough panda. ( )
  theanalogdivide | Dec 1, 2009 |
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Epigraph
China is a country of unforgettable color, and often, quite unbidden come vivid pictures to my mind - - sometimes it is the golden roofs of the Imperial City in Peking, or again it is the yellow corn on the flat-roofed little stone houses in the country of the Tibetan border land.
- - Ruth Harkness
Dedication
FOR MY SISTER, LINDA BIANDO
First words
It was a bitter winter night, February 19, 1936, and on the outskirts of Shanghai, far from the neon and the wailing jazz, a thirty-four-year-old William Harvest Harkness, Jr. lay in a private hospital, blood-stiffened silk sutures tracking across his pale abdomen. He was dying and alone in his agony.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375759700, Paperback)

Here is the astonishing true story of Ruth Harkness, the Manhattan bohemian socialite who, against all but impossible odds, trekked to Tibet in 1936 to capture the most mysterious animal of the day: a bear that had for countless centuries lived in secret in the labyrinth of lonely cold mountains. In The Lady and the Panda, Vicki Constantine Croke gives us the remarkable account of Ruth Harkness and her extraordinary journey, and restores Harkness to her rightful place along with Sacajawea, Nellie Bly, and Amelia Earhart as one of the great woman adventurers of all time.

Ruth was the toast of 1930s New York, a dress designer newly married to a wealthy adventurer, Bill Harkness. Just weeks after their wedding, however, Bill decamped for China in hopes of becoming the first Westerner to capture a giant panda–an expedition on which many had embarked and failed miserably. Bill was also to fail in his quest, dying horribly alone in China and leaving his widow heartbroken and adrift. And so Ruth made the fateful decision to adopt her husband’s dream as her own and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.

It was not easy. Indeed, everything was against Ruth Harkness. In decadent Shanghai, the exclusive fraternity of white male explorers patronized her, scorned her, and joked about her softness, her lack of experience and money. But Ruth ignored them, organizing, outfitting, and leading a bare-bones campaign into the majestic but treacherous hinterlands where China borders Tibet. As her partner she chose Quentin Young, a twenty-two-year-old Chinese explorer as unconventional as she was, who would join her in a romance as torrid as it was taboo.

Traveling across some of the toughest terrain in the world–nearly impenetrable bamboo forests, slick and perilous mountain slopes, and boulder-strewn passages–the team raced against a traitorous rival, and was constantly threatened by hordes of bandits and hostile natives. The voyage took months to complete and cost Ruth everything she had. But when, almost miraculously, she returned from her journey with a baby panda named Su Lin in her arms, the story became an international sensation and made the front pages of newspapers around the world. No animal in history had gotten such attention. And Ruth Harkness became a hero.

Drawing extensively on American and Chinese sources, including diaries, scores of interviews, and previously unseen intimate letters from Ruth Harkness, Vicki Constantine Croke has fashioned a captivating and richly textured narrative about a woman ahead of her time. Part Myrna Loy, part Jane Goodall, by turns wisecracking and poetic, practical and spiritual, Ruth Harkness is a trailblazing figure. And her story makes for an unforgettable, deeply moving adventure.


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:50:37 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Ruth Harkness was a Manhattan socialite, newly married to a wealthy adventurer. Weeks after their wedding, he decamped for China in hopes of becoming the first Westerner to capture the most mysterious animal of the day, a giant panda--an expedition on which many had failed miserably. Bill was also to fail, dying alone in China and leaving his widow adrift. In 1936, Ruth adopted her husband's dream as her own. In decadent Shanghai, white male explorers scorned her, so she chose as her partner a 22-year-old Chinese explorer as unconventional as she was, who would join her in a romance as torrid as it was taboo. Traveling across some of the toughest terrain in the world, where China borders Tibet, they raced against a traitorous rival, and were threatened by hordes of bandits and hostile natives. The voyage cost Ruth everything she had, but when she returned with a baby panda, the story became an international sensation. No animal in history had gotten such attention.--From publisher description.… (more)

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