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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The lives of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are modern-day myths: Western women who valiantly studied and saved great apes in the wild jungles. PBS-style darlings, these two women have been the subject of popular books and movies and are clearly celebrated by the culture as treasured heroines. So I expected Linda Spalding's new book on the Canadian anthropologist and orangutan researcher Biruté Galdikas — a woman who, along with Fossey and Goodall, formed the trio known as Louis Leakey's "three angels" — to be another story of a feisty heroine. I foresaw a familiar tale offering familiar anecdotes of a noble white woman's dedication and heartwarming bonding with primates. But this was not what I found.A Dark Place in the Jungle is a brave and honest look at a truly flawed and — dare I say it — despicable woman.
We first meet Biruté in Los Angeles. She is a celebrated college lecturer there, and the city is also home to the main headquarters of her organization, OFI — Orangutan Foundation International (an organization that charges volunteers $2,000 for their assistance on studies in Borneo). The elusive Biruté is shielded by an agent and publicist. ("If you wish to visit her in Borneo, you could call her at 1-800-Orangutan. Also, in this month's Cosmopolitan there's a marvelous article on Dr. Galdikas and her new book.") Finally, after several brush-offs, Spalding dines with Biruté, and the revered naturalist is rather cold and curt, perking up only when Spalding mentions that her husband Michael Ondaatje's novel,TheEnglish Patient, has won the Booker Prize and is being made into a Hollywood movie. "What prize?" Birutééasks. "Would my book be eligible?" She mentions her hope that Sharon Stone will star in the movie adaptation of her life story.
Soon after, despite a lack of encouragement from her subject, Spalding travels to Borneo. There, the picture of Biruté only becomes darker. Galdikas has been effectively banned from the jungle by park administrators, a fact she neglects to mention in her lucrative fund-raising appeals. Rumors that Galdikas has circumvented this ban by smuggling orangutans out of their natural habitat turn out to be true. Where does she keep the apes? In the palatial mansion she owns.
Most disturbing of all is the account of a volunteer who tells Spalding that, suffering from starvation and pneumonia, she was held under house arrest by an extremely uncompassionate Galdikas. She was threatened to never reveal what she had witnessed — the death and mistreatment of the very animals Biruté boasted of saving. The reality, as the volunteer tells it, was that "she had orangutan babies dropping like flies."
Thankfully, the story of this distressing travesty runs parallel to a far more genuine, hopeful narrative. Spalding brought her two daughters with her on her first trek to Borneo, and as they travel through a lush, fascinating region, Spalding experiences a renewed admiration for these two appealing young women. Sparked by the nature-versus-nurture issue inherent in anthropology, she reflects on the mother-daughter relationship, drawing on the love and struggles she had experienced as a single mother before her marriage to Ondaatje.
Recounting her three trips to Borneo, Spalding also offers a thoughtful and non-pedantic look at tourism, logging practices, and development. Unlike many "experts" on these controversial subjects, she refuses to offer solutions and sound bites. Instead, she asks us to consider: "What should be saved?" "What should be destroyed?" And these questions are brought to the reader in the same powerful way as the darkness in the jungle, with the language of a poet and the grace of a philosopher.