One of my goals for 2008 is to read more non-fiction. I'm not a big non-fiction writer and it takes a special story to keep me interested. "The Lady and the Panda" is the exact type of non-fiction I like because it makes you think "why didn't I know this story?".
Ruth Harkness was the first person to bring a panda to the United States from China. This was in 1936 when China was still a mystery to most in the United States and a panda was an animal few had seen. The story of why she decides to take on the quest to find a panda, her decision to try to capture a baby panda and her love of the people of China is really a page turner. Living in Chicago it was fun to read that the first panda does end up at the Brookfield Zoo.
I think baby pandas, and even adult pandas, are about the cutest animals in the whole world. But at odds with their good looks is a country in turmoil. China has hunters going into the country and killing and trapping pandas with no plan for preservation. Because China, at that time, was not organized enough to restrict the export of pandas they could not even protect the animals. Add to that the strained relations between Japan and China.
Ruth's second trip to China seems crazy - no guides, very little in the way of supplies and no other Americans. As with most larger than life people she has very high highs and very low lows. The ending of her life is not happy but she accomplished something that no one, let alone a woman, had never done before.
The end notes of the book as well as the author's retracing of Ruth's steps in China are very touching. Again, maybe I like this type of non-fiction because it reads like a fiction story but it does make me interested to learn more about China at the time this was happening.