Nonfiction Monday: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

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This picture book biography tells the (simplified) story of Ruth Harkness, a 1930′s socialite who traveled to China in search of the giant panda. Ruth was a fashion designer and unlikely explorer but decided to complete her husband’s quest after he died of throat cancer in China. Ruth ignores scoffing friends and society and heads off to China. She ultimately succeeds in capturing a small panda cub, who she names Su-Lin and brings back to the Brookfield Zoo.

It’s an interesting story. On one level, Ruth is to be admired. It took courage to travel and do something that women of the time were not thought capable of. At the same time, I was bothered by the idea of capturing a wild baby animal just out of sheer curiosity. As told, it doesn’t appear that Ruth knew anything about pandas or had a passion for learning about them. She seems driven more by the desire to do something no one else has just for the sake of doing it. The author, Alicia Potter, does address this issue at the end of the book. She still portrays Ruth as somewhat of a hero, who by bringing back the panda, introduced the world to a remarkable animal and paved the way for wildlife education and ultimately conservation.

I remain skeptical about the heroic nature of her character and accomplishment. (Compare Ruth’s approach with someone like Jane Goodall.) But it is an interesting story and if nothing else opens the door to some good conversation. And as always the fabulous Melissa Sweet makes the book worth reading just to look at the illustrations.

In poking around a bit on the Internet, I discovered that Ruth’s life was more complicated than told here (as expected in a picture book length biography). Many reviews referenced The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Croke for a more thorough look at Ruth’s life and journey.

Related links: 
Review of The Lady and the Panda in the Christian Science Monitor
Fantastic, very comprehensive review of Mrs. Harkness and the Panda at the School Library Journal.
Website for an Imax film based on Ruth’s life story

Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week at Apples with Many Seeds.