Do you ever have those books that seem like they take you an eon to read and you don't understand why? I mean, of course you've got chunksters and the books you know are packed full of beautiful, complicated prose that need extra reading time and you know from the outset to expect it. What about those books, though, that are fairly uncomplicated, fairly enjoyable, and yet just seem to go on and on despite being of average length? I'm afraid that Julian Smith's Crossing the Heart of Africa was just such an experience for me. Despite liking it enough, it seemed to go on and on for me. Perhaps it's because I let myself get out of the habit of reading non-fiction, even nice narrative non-fiction with hefty doses of memoir, usually my favorite non-fiction to tackle. I worry the amount of days I unwittingly put into reading Crossing the Heart of Africa has clouded my opinion of a book that ultimately has much to recommend it, but enough of this navel gazing, let's start at the beginning.
In Crossing the Heart of Africa author Julian Smith tells two intertwined stories. The first is that of somewhat lesser-known African explorer Ewart Grogan, who, in 1889, pledged that he would make the first crossing of the African continent from south to north in order to win the hand of his true love, Gertrude, a woman well above his social station. Smith gives us a version Grogan's treacherous journey which will end with Gertrude's uncle's blessing upon their matrimony. Alongside Grogan's story is Smith's recounting of his own journey across modern-day Africa following Grogan's route, a journey that despite the passage of more than a hundred years, is still fraught with danger and difficulty, but for entirely different reasons. Rather than earning his love's hand, though, Smith's journey is his last act as a "free" unmarried man. As he traverses the continent, Smith also reflects upon his 7 year relationship with Laura, the woman who is about to become his wife.
Smith's relationship reflections are easily my least favorite part of the book and, in my opinion, add little to it. Smith's disclosures are never inappropriate, but in ways they feel almost too personal to the point that I worry that if it had been me Smith was getting married to, I'd have been uncomfortable to have the nooks and crannies of our relationship dissected on the page. Smith, in his reflections, also reveals himself to be the sort of total commitment-phobe that I find difficult to understand. I found it difficult to wrap my mind around someone who, after 7 years and numerous "Aha! I love you!" moments would still be dragging his feet about the part with the rings. I'm afraid these things distracted me from what is, on the whole, a very good book.
I'd never heard Ewart Grogan's story before, and Smith does an excellent job of giving Grogan's story new life. He captures the highs and lows of Grogan's trip, a journey made difficult by everything from disease to cannibals to volcanic wasteland to lack of supplies and hostile natives at every turn, but also a journey made spectacular by its opportunities for seeing incredible, virtually untouched wilderness, the thrill of the hunt of species that were practically the stuff of legends, and, of course, the reaching of the ultimate goal - a marriage to Gertrude. Smith reveals, in Grogan, a still young man of extreme determination and intelligent, practical leadership, and, in Africa, a still wild land of tribes both friendly and unfriendly, laboring under the great and lesser burdens of colonialism.
Weaved into Grogan's story is Smith's own journey through Africa via a similar route to Grogan's. Smith's journey is fraught with trials of its own, though his near-death experiences are considerably more limited than Grogan's. Smith's is a story of still-rugged wilderness, packed and undependable "public" transportation, friendly eager-to-please people who might just be friendly or might just be so desparate to get out of Africa that any American looks like a walking chance at a U.S. visa. On his trip, Smith finds an Africa riddled by violent conflicts that keep him from following Grogan's route exactly and an African continent marked by countries with struggling economies that offer few opportunities to their citizens, no matter how industrious.
Crossing the Heart of Africa is an entertaining re-telling of a death-defying adventure and a study in contrasts. Smith gives an interesting side-by-side look a Africa's past and its present that allows us to draw our own conclusions about what has really changed in Africa in a century marked by struggle and corruption. At the same time, Smith offers us a snapshot of practical modern love juxtaposed against the romantic ideas of a different time that might well have us longing for days when a woman's heart and her hand in marriage was considered something worth earning.
(Thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for the review copy!)