The letters in this collection date from Ms. Goodall's youth through 1966, when her stature as a scientist was well established based on her pioneering research in Africa.
Books of letters are normally associated with great female authors of novels, such as Virginia Woolf. In those wonderful volumes, beautiful style and playful use of words adds joy to one's appreciation of the literary works themselves.
So, I did not know what to expect from a book of Jane Goodall's letters. What I found was a most pleasant surprise. The letters provide a deep perspective into the personality of Ms. Goodall and how that contributed to the development of the research methods she used. I found the letters fascinating and very rewarding, despite the fact that they are the opposite of high literary style.
If you are like me, you may primarily know Jane Goodall from her National Geographic television specials. Those were very accessible and enjoyable. But I did not know the background concerning how her pioneering research with chimpanzees was initiated and developed. This book wonderfully filled in that background. Also, I did not know how an attractive young Englishwoman came to become a field scientist in Africa in the first place. Also, the shows made it all seem rather natural and easy.
First, you will come away impressed with what a devoted correspondent she was. Over 16,000 letters were found by the editor to draw from. Now, how many letters have you written in your life? Also, these are mostly long, newsy letters to family, friends, and professional colleagues. If she had been a book reviewer, no one would have believed her production. Remember that she had no computer to help her draft the letters. In fact, she had the balkiest manual typewriters imaginable.
What was even more remarkable to me was that so many of her early letters had been saved. How many letters have you saved from people under the age of 15? That these letters are available is quite a testimony to her relationships with these people, and the impact of her personality.
Then, I did not know that she was a secretarial school graduate when she went to Africa. A few jobs quickly convinced her that she was not cut out for indoor work. She was eventually accepted into a Ph.D. program without ever having attended college! In fact, she had done most of her breakthrough field work before her Ph.D. was even granted. So much for formal education as a way to create new scholarly methods.
Ms. Goodall has a wonderful love of humans and animals that makes no significant distinction between them. I was overwhelmed to read her descriptions of her pets and the chimpanzees and baboons she studied. It is remarkable to read page after page as she gossips with people about the animals by name in more detail and with more sympathy than in much of what she writes about people who were not close to her. This perspective is a fairly unique one, and led to her finding ways to relate to the animals throughout her early years.
There is great humor throughout the letters. Her many descriptions of men becoming interested in her and how she handled them are echoed in her descriptions of the female chimpanzees eluded the hovering males. Humor and laughter came easily to her. You will laugh too at the descriptions of the chimpanzees tickling each other.
You will come away with a great respect for what she accomplished. The difficulties she overcame were incredible, and the work that she put into her research is beyond imagining. She mostly wrote these letters around midnight, after working from 6:30 in the morning . . . often in the driving rain. This was a 7 day a week effort for her. Frustrations were everwhere. Great sequences would occur, but where no one could photograph them. Or the exposures were set wrong on the camera, and the whole roll of film produced nothing. And the camera problems were just the least of it . . . although they were the most maddening to Ms. Goodall. Malaria, shingles, and mysterious diseases affected her and the others she worked with. But her commitment remained strong.
Dale Peterson has done a fine job of selecting the letters and summarizing them at the beginning of each section. My only complaint about the editing was that more footnotes would have been helpful. I was regularly lost in trying to understand who some of the people were whom Ms. Goodall refers to.
I suggest that you give this book to a young person who loves animals. Perhaps something will "click" that will allow that person to see that she or he can live a life devoted to inquiry and closeness with animals.
Follow your instincts!
on 13 December 2001
You can feel your toes curl as Jane reveals her innermost thoughts in her letters home. Her determination to succeed, her love of the chimpanzees she studies, her patience and her joy when at last they learn to trust her. This collection of letters also demonstrates a naive approach to behavioural studies; on the one hand Jane observes the chimpanzees and notes every little detail and is the first to discover they eat meat for example but, on the other hand she cannot remain objective. She names all her friends and shares their heartaches, their triumphs and feels their losses as keenly as they do. I learnt from Jane that chimpanzees can cry. A delightful book.