Month: August 2010

Scientist in the Mist

Who on Earth is Dian Fossey?: Defender of the Mountain Gorillas
By Jill Menkes Kushner
(Enslow Publishers, Inc., Berkley Heights, New Jersey, 2010 $31.93)

Who on Earth is Dian Fossey? is an excellent introduction to Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas, mountain gorillas in general, and wildlife conservation. However, Fossey herself, apart from her dedication to the gorillas she studied, remains a shadowy figure in this biography.

Author Jill Menkes Kushner explores Fossey’s sense of purpose and indifference to risk. Fossey took out a large, high-interest loan to fund her first trip to Africa. She liked what she saw, so she quit a secure job as an occupational therapist to study gorillas in the remote forests of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With patience, Fossey won the gorillas’ acceptance – and, in some cases, their friendship. Later, she shrugged off poor health, military unrest, and hostile poaching gangs to pursue her research and protect the endangered species. Her courage made her famous, gained her fans and enemies, and led to her brutal murder by poachers in 1985.

Who on Earth is Dian Fossey? is an educational biography, written for the school and library markets. As such, the book, with its headlines and occasionally choppy prose, often reads like a textbook. But Kushner includes enough moving stories about the primatologist and her gorilla friends to capture the wonder of Fossey’s life. These anecdotes, along with photos of Fossey interacting with the gorillas, should captivate kids interested in animals and nature.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Greatest Showman on Earth

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T.Barnum
By Candace Fleming
(Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, 2009, $18.99)

P.T. Barnum, fabled founder of Barnum and Bailey circus, never said what he’s most famous for saying: “There’s a sucker born every minute and another one to exploit him.” A rival, frustrated by Barnum’s success, uttered those lines. But Barnum did assert, “Most people enjoy a harmless hoax,” and he made a few fortunes from spectacles and “good-natured deception.”

The Great and Only Barnum is a readable, appealing look at the charismatic entertainer. Using period artwork, photographs, advertisements, and newspaper clippings, author Candace Fleming chronicles Barnum’s rise from small-town New England boy to New York City showman to international sensation to circus founder. Along the way, she introduces readers to the elephants, bearded ladies, divas, frog swallowers, and little people whom Barnum made famous and who made Barnum famous in return. Side panels offer a closer look at various aspects of Barnum’s career and of nineteenth-century life.

P.T. Barnum emerges from the text as a man equally impossible to ignore or know. Refusing to shelter young readers from controversy, Fleming captures Barnum’s many contradictions. In the 1830s, he bought a slave, an elderly black woman named Joice Heth, and exhibited her as the world’s oldest living person. Later, as a state representative for Connecticut in the 1860s, he defied public opinion and fought for voting rights for African Americans. Business consumed him, but he was a deeply spiritual man who believed all religions were one and advocated religious tolerance. And although his profit-making ventures left him little time for his own daughters, he loved entertaining children. He said there was “no music so sweet as their clear-ringing laughter.”

“People who pay their money at the door have the right to form their own opinions,” Barnum once said of his customers. Fleming offers readers a splendiferous look at an American legend – and lets them decide for themselves.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Out of Obscurity, Into History

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
by Philip Hoose
(Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2009, $19.95)

Most biographies describe a well-known figure’s path to fame and maturity. In Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Philip Hoose focuses on the adolescence of a brave woman history almost forgot.

Every American student knows Rosa Parks, the African-American seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in December 1955. Few study Claudette Colvin, the fifteen year old girl who took the same bold step six months earlier. Unlike Parks, who planned her civil disobedience with the full backing of the NAACP, Colvin acted spontaneously and alone. Later, she was a key witness in Browder vs. Gayle, the court case that ended bus segregation.

But despite Colvin’s courage, she was a working-class black girl in the Jim Crow south. Forgotten by adult civil rights leaders, discriminated against by whites, the bright, idealistic teenager faced poverty and single motherhood – and watched her dreams of law school evaporate.

Hoose tells Claudette Colvin’s story with the respect and nuance she deserves. In fact, Claudette’s words, gathered during multiple interviews, comprise much of the book. Interspersed with her moving first-person narrative is Hoose’s account of the personal and political events that led to bus desegregation. Period photographs, advertisements, and newspaper clippings illustrate both the cruel absurdity of segregation and the quiet strength of those who opposed it.

Fascinating and highly readable for both teens and adults, Claudette Colvin is a portrait of a thoughtful teenager who turned her anger into social action. Let’s hope Hoose’s book inspires a few more teens to social consciousness – and civil disobedience.

© Dorothy A. Dahm