The Lady and the Panda would likely have never made my Reading List but for a friend, who read it on her way to China, strongly recommended it to me. And who can resist pandas? While it’s not a nail-biting page turner and I’m typically not a fan of nonfiction, I did enjoy reading it for several reasons. First, Journalist Vicki Constantine Croke did a great job with the narrative, recounting the dramatic expedition to China that was led by America’s first female explorer — young New York socialite and flapper Ruth Harkness — who was determined to follow in her dead husband’s footsteps to bring back the first-ever live giant panda in an easy-to-read, story-like fashion. Second, the historical perspective it gives is interesting, especially if you’re someone like me who forgets the world was very different not that long ago. And, of course, it’s about what is considered the most adored animal (spoiler alert: their plight at the hands of greedy hunters was at times hard to read about — I literally had to skip parts). Not lost in this true tale, and as intriguing as what would ultimately be two such expeditions, is the lasting bond that formed between Harkness and the irresistible bears — and China itself.
It’s amazing to me to think that less than 80 years ago (the book is set in late 30s/early 40s) there were still “explorers”; that animals, even the panda, were unknown to the world (but, sadly, not to hunters); and that China still had unmapped areas. Not to mention that a woman “explorer” was a true oddity. Even so, 80 years seems like such a short time for all that has occurred since. Today, we seem light years ahead in such things. The Earth is mapped and there have been space explorers for decades, ladies among them — and conservation efforts are helping keep the giant panda from extinction. But one thing does remain the same, the panda still captures our hearts.
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