Saturday, March 15, 2014

Between Man and Beast: A Tale of Exploration & Evolution by Monte Reel

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for the Amazon Vine program, plus it was the perfect blend of nature and history for me.

Summary: The story of Paul Du Chaillu's adventures in Africa in pursuit of gorillas, and his lengthier, nastier encounters with the people of Great Britain.

My Thoughts: What a world we lived in, in those Victorian times.

I wasn't there, of course, but have sometimes been so immersed in research about the time period that it feels like I was. Even so, there are some things I don't think I could ever get used to, like the ideas on race that were widely held at that time. I just have a different baseline, and can't imagine slipping backwards to the baseline of 1855.

Our protagonist, an explorer of dubious origin - especially as it comes to race - sets off to Africa with the intent of bringing back the first gorillas to the civilized western world. He starts with America, where he is basically viewed as a sideshow peddler, and then visits England, where he becomes the most talked about person in the highest circles of London. But where there's fame, there are critics and jealousy. His apparent successes are torn down, his every scientific notion shredded, justly or unjustly. He returns to Africa to try again, and has an epiphany. He trades his guns for scientific observation tools.

The story is part African adventure, part Victorian London navigation. Du Chaillu has to weave his way through minefields of dissent and doubt, even accusations that he may be one of "them" (black) in a world that knew that people of African origin were more animalistic than uiman. It was a world that believed, with almost all of its heart, that black folk were closer kin to gorillas than white folk were to black folk - and, boy, was that world in for a rude awakening in a few short years.

Du Chaillu influenced many writers, including T.H. Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle and Merian C. Cooper (King Kong). Strangely, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not mentioned, but I would guess that before embarking on the Tarzan saga, he would have at least known of Paul and his work.

Next step? We can go back to the beginning and read Paul's own work, which has been digitized: Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa.


  1. This book seems right up my alley. I really like the ones that combine history/exploration/adventure/science. My kids and I read Conan Doyle's The Lost World a couple of years ago and thought it was a lot of fun. I could see how du Chaillu's work could have influences Doyle's.

    You might also like The Lost City of Z by David Grann and The River of Doubt by Candice Millard.


  2. Read The River of Doubt when I used to run a natural history book club for Mass Audubon. That was an excellent one. Just haven't gotten to The Lost City of Z yet, but it's on the list :)