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Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters


Publisher:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



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About the book:

Africa may not always have been in Jane Goodall's blood, but animals were there right from the start: the list of recipients in what one hopes is only the first volume of her letters includes Dido the dog and Pickles the cat. And this is no flight of editorial fantasy. Goodall always accorded these members of her "darlingest family" their proper place alongside such correspondents as her mother, her father, her best friend, and her mentor, Louis Leakey (a.k.a. FFF, Foster Fairy Father). Africa in My Blood opens with 7-year-old Valerie Jane's encounters with various canines (real and porcelain) as well as signs of incipient naturalism--she has found "a ded rook he died of cold" and is caretaking a "catepiler." In the same communiqué, she also notes that her toy chimp has a new dress. Goodall would later prefer her primates au naturel but would continue to balance her urge for living taxonomy with love and empathy.

Culled from more than 16,000 letters, this collection will inspire Goodall adepts and those coming upon her for the first time. Her "autobiography in letters" restores this icon to full, even frivolous, humanity. It also recalls a lost era of inspired amateurism. When she went off to Nairobi at 23 in the spring of 1957, Goodall had no formal scientific training. Yet within weeks she had met Leakey and was soon working with him, not to mention rebuffing his advances, though she assures her mother that "he's much too fond of me for any monkey business."

Meanwhile, they had already discussed monkey business of a higher sort. "There is the vaguest possible chance that little me," Goodall wrote, "may have the chance to go right out into the wilds of the Northern Frontier for two or 3 months to study a strange tribe of chimpanzees who may be a new species, or sub-species. That is too heavenly to even think about." By the summer of 1960, Goodall was installed at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve (which she soon termed Chimpland). And over the next year, she made four key discoveries, if not more, and was proving herself the zoological equal of such masters as George Schaller, having documented her subjects eating meat as well as using tools with ease.

Africa in My Blood reminds us that Goodall was once a controversial rather than hallowed figure, her methodology viewed with suspicion and condescension. And as many of us happily vegetate in front of televised slices of animal life, her awareness of her privileged position puts things in perspective. In early 1961, Goodall recounts a complex ritual and then asks her family: "Can you begin to imagine how I felt? The only human ever to have witnessed such a display, in all its primitive, fantastic wonder?"

Because Goodall has written so elegantly and incisively on chimpanzee behavior in, for instance, In the Shadow of Man and Through a Window, some readers might initially be tempted to gloss over her descriptions of such animals as the venerable David Greybeard and expert towel thief William and concentrate on her own persona--teasing, hyper-enthusiastic, and absolutely determined. When her project is threatened in 1963, she implores FFF: "You would fall head over heels in love with all my darlings--never, never think that I will let anything happen to them through what I am doing. I KNOW it is right. I KNOW that I can work the Reserve the way it must. I KNOW that I shall come back here time and time again until the problems that remain are hardly worth mentioning." Africa in My Blood makes it clear that, as Jane Goodall has long stressed, human and ape cannot be separated. --Kerry Fried

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