Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Adventure and Kansas: A Book Review

Cover art for OSA AND MARTIN
I was born and have grown up in Kansas and my father was born and raised in southeastern Kansas; therefore I have often been in the Chanute, Kansas area, but I have never visited the Osa and Martin Johnson Safari museum. Isn't that so often the way? When you live near "tourist" destinations, you never go to them! Even after reading this book, Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure by Kelly Enright, I'm not that ready to drive to Chanute for the opportunity to explore the museum's exhibitions.

Although the author provides a great narrative of the events and activities of the adventures of Osa and Martin Johnson in Africa, photographing natives and wild animals, I never felt the drive behind their efforts, except that they could not stay put in civilization. In fact, their adventures seemed superficial and Enright does not fully explain the impact of their adventures. Each safari is the same mixture of failure and success--cameras don't work, cars break down, animals won't cooperate; Osa saves Martin's life, a new guide comes through, Martin gets a great shot of elephants. I wanted to know why these problems occurred--what were the technical limitations of the cameras they used, for example. I also wondered about the real influence of the Johnson's work in filming animals and natives in Africa and beyond--other than the curiosity of the the movie goers, what effect did they have? How would wildlife experts or environmentalists judge their efforts today? How well does their work hold up to current viewing? In Enright's telling, the different safari trips and the materials the Johnsons produced (films, vaudeville shows, animals brought home as pets and zoo animals, etc) flow together without real distinction.

Enright's best work is her description of Martin Johnson's first adventure with Jack London, the great writer. The weakest section is Osa's life after Martin dies in a commercial, domestic airline crash. Osa seemed adrift after the man she married when she was 16 is gone--has a couple of bad relationships and abuses alcohol and yet continues the trailblazing path of her partnership with her husband through books and a television series.

I do think the book would have benefitted from a separate photographic section, with better quality prints--the pictures included on the pages of the text are rather small and the details hard to make out. There's a great adventure story there somewhere, but this book didn't convey that adventure to me.

Note: I checked this book out from the public library.

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