The 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.
Novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, Ecco, 1996) describes how a suggestion from a publisher sent her off on an adventure, ostensively to discover the truth about a mysterious woman studying orangutans in Borneo but in reality to explore truths about herself. The Canadian title of this book, The Follow, more accurately captures the spirit of a book in which the supposed subject, primatologist Birute Galdikas, virtually never appears. After a semi-comic attempt to interview an indifferent Galdikas in California, Spalding and her daughters traveled to Kalimantan to visit Camp Leakey. Through meetings with local officials and associates of Galdikas, she gained some impression of the problems of deforestation, pollution, and the trade in captive orangutans. The book succeeds as a haunting account of a despoiled "Eden" but not as a journalistic account of Galdikas's activities in Borneo. Everyone seems to have an opinion about her, but none of it seems to add up. This is an important issue, given allegations that Galdikas has attempted to raise and rehabilitate orphaned orangutans in substandard conditions. Galdikas's own autobiography, Reflections of Eden (LJ 12/94), presumably doesn't tell the whole story, but neither does this book. Recommended primarily for travel/natural history collections. [The finished book will include an epilog, not seen by reviewer, containing excerpts of Indonesian government reports alleging the mistreatment of orangutans and the misuse of funds by Galdikas.--Ed.]--Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Spalding follows orangutan researcher Birut<'e> Galdikas to Borneo's threatened jungles to discover a mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, and half-tame orangutans vying for control of the jungle. Galdikas began studying orangutans in the wild in 1971. As poachers and timber barons slaughtered the orangutans by the thousands, she became a mother to orphaned orangutans and confronted the dangers and temptations of eco-tourism. Spalding has written two novels. Lacks a subject index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Bad press for primatologist Biruté Galdikas and her work with the orangutans of Borneo, from novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, 1996, etc.). Grim rumors attend Galdikas much as they did another of Louis Leakey's trio of angels, Dian Fossey: reports that she is delusional, vastly self-absorbed, a threat not only to herself but also the creatures she claims to protect. Unfortunately, Galdikas does little to challenge the snipings, if that is what they are. Spalding, who had sought out Galdikas as a vehicle to explore our species's distancing from the natural world, found the primatologist distracted and aloof on the rare occasions when she made contact and furtive the rest of the time. Spalding tries to avoid official channels to get at Galdikas, but that only incurs the wrath of Borneo's refuge manager and distances Galdikas even further. So Spalding must rely on reports and interviews with those who have worked directly with Galdikas to investigate claims of the dreadful failure of interspecies adoption (humans caring for orphaned orangutans) and retrofitting them for the wildGaldikas's sacred notion and guiding principle. From what Spalding has gathered, it's a disaster, with the rehabilitated orangutans often killed by their wild counterparts, or spreading disease throughout the forest canopy, or simply too emotionally damaged by their time with humans to survive in a wild state. Spalding also reports that Galdikas may have an outrageous number of orangutans at her town house in Pasir Panjang, far from their natural precincts, in a situation that comes perilously (and creepily) close to an anthropomorphism gone berserk. There are further allegations of profiteeringand intellectual back-stabbing, of worthless data gathered by incompetents under Galdikas's direction, and of an ecotourism that delivers a skewed message and its income into the wrong hands. Spalding tries to lighten the impact of her story with an idyllic, out-of-time passage to a Dayak village, but it is to no avail. The picture here of Galdikas's activities is unremittingly distressing and raises serious questions to which she will have to respond.