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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Jane Goodall is one of the most celebrated women of our times -- her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania greatly advanced our understanding of human and animal behavior. She is also a popular and inspiring figure -- a friend of mine recalls that in high school she fantasized about one day living in the wild with a little son named Grub -- just like Jane, the National Geographic cover girl.
In Reason for Hope, Goodall offers a fascinating and candid look at her impressive life. She reveals what her private life was like during the time of her groundbreaking work, and she explores the environmental concerns that now keep her on a hectic lecture and fundraising schedule. What's most enjoyable -- and surprising -- about her memoir is how such a serious and important figure turns out to be vulnerable, romantic, and a bit of an emotional eccentric.
One might expect that Jane, as a little British girl, would have been deeply taken with animals and the natural world. And she was: She collected earthworms and hung around in the henhouse for hours. But one doesn't expect to find out that the young Jane was like a Brontë character, whirling around with intense passions -- "an aspiring poet and martyr." Preoccupied with torture and saints, she wrote poems about "oozing blood" and "red-hot metal bores." Then, at a "naive nineteen," she went off to London: "I met young men with whom I flirted deliciously and who took me out to dinner and the theater." This "fantastic and innocent" experience ended when she saved up her waitressing earnings and went off to meet a childhood friend in Africa.
Hired as personal assistant to the famed paleontologist Louis Leakey, Goodall might have merely transcribed notes and served coffee. She had no training, no degree, no academic credentials. Why did Leakey choose her to conduct important scientific research? Clearly, her passionate, enthusiastic personality worked in her favor. She was willing to take risks, to make original observations. Proper researchers would have never given names like "Fifi" and "Flo" to the chimpanzees, much less described them as having personalities. But this nontraditional approach was one reason Goodall's work appealed to so many average people. She refused to see science and nature as separate from humanity and passion.
In the post-Leakey era, Goodall faced events that might have made her more cynical or pragmatic. She became more aware of the intense aggression and cruelty chimpanzees were capable of. Her beloved second husband, a dashing member of Parliament, was stricken with a sudden and fatal cancer. Her career was hurt by the scandal that swirled around her after four students at her camp were kidnapped by rebels. In an honest, straightforward manner, Goodall reveals how these events devastated her -- we see her tearful and terrified and unsure.
As well as her own personal struggles, Goodall discusses larger concerns about environmental damage, genocide, and animal abuse. She shares her admiration for activists and spiritual leaders and her belief that kindness will triumph over evil and greed. But it's ultimately the lack of scientific jargon and political diatribes that make Reason for Hope such an enjoyable and original book. Who would expect that a revered scientist would speak so often of being "enchanted," "lost in awe at the beauty," and "experiencing the ecstasy of the mystic"? And as for poetry, she still writes it -- several of her most recent works are included here. Margot Towne