Select one of the keywords
The Lady and the Panda    by Vicki Constantine Croke order for
Lady and the Panda
by Vicki Constantine Croke
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In her Preface, Vicki Constantine Croke speaks of learning about Ruth Harkness, 'a dress designer and socialite, who in 1936 took over her dead husband's expedition to the border of China and Tibet and captured the first giant panda to be seen in the West.' At that time, Harkness was 'an international sensation' and Croke was intrigued enough to tell her remarkable story in depth in The Lady and the Panda. She tells us that she felt awed that 'a Manhattan party girl' was able to keep panda babies alive when that still presents a major challenge to scientists and zookeepers.

This was an era of gentlemen daredevils, and Ruth's husband, Bill Harkness, was one of them. He died of throat cancer in Shanghai, while attempting to launch an expedition to capture a live giant panda. Ruth decided that it was up to her to fulfill Bill's 'hopes and dreams'. Completely underestimated by friends and family, she sailed for Europe and then Shanghai - Croke aptly quotes a 1920s Christian evangelist on the city, 'If God lets Shanghai endure, / He owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah'. Croke shows us how Harkness cleverly avoided the obstacles that had hampered her husband. She rid herself of associates who had leeched on him, and viewed the bureaucracy 'through the prism of yin and yang: in weakness there is the seed of strength.' Not being a scientist, she decided simply not to apply for permits (which simplified matters only in the short term). She won powerful friends and supporters amongst the expat community. And she found a Chinese partner (with whom she later shared a romantic interlude), the very competent Quentin Young, who had traveled extensively with his explorer brother Jack.

This was a period of great tumult in China (Communists fighting Nationalists and bandits everywhere). Ruth and Quentin set off in September, 1936 for the 'lonely lost world of tumbled mountains' of the Tibetan border. On November 9th, they found a baby panda, which they named Su-Lin. Luckily, Ruth had had the foresight to bring a baby bottle ('the expedition's most crucial piece of equipment'), so was able to feed the infant formula. Back in Shanghai, both explorer and baby were lionized, but had difficulty (lacking the appropriate papers) leaving the country. In San Francisco and New York, they were instant celebrities, despite the associates Ruth had ditched trying to claim credit. After placing Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo, Harkness planned another expedition to China and was back just in time for the start of World War II. Undaunted by bombings, she set off from a burning Shanghai, this time without Young's support and via a circuitous route. On this trip, hunters captured a young adult panda (who died in captivity), and eventually another baby (Mei-Mei).

Ruth Harkness's later life was not so happy or successful. She developed a serious drinking problem. She returned to China at a time when 'Pandas were dying in the gold-rush-like fever that capturing them had become.' After an epiphany, Harkness returned a captured baby to the wild. She died in 1947. In an Epilogue, Croke describes how family members traveled to the Chinese interior with the explorer's ashes. If you like travel literature, then you really should read The Lady and the Panda, which has it all - colorful characters, a surprising female lead, travel to obscure regions, a grand prize, and elements of a spiritual search.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Travel books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews