The Lady and the Panda

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I have a great love for the giant panda. If I could give all the money in the world to ensure that they would no longer be endangered, I would. One of my absolute favorite books tells the story of the woman (yes I said WOMAN) who brought the first giant panda to America. Her name was Ruth Harkness. And the book is The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Croke.

Ruth Harkness was a socialite in the 1920’s who really only worried about what dress she was going to wear to that night’s function. She was happily married to Bill Harkness: an adventurer with the dream of being the first person to bring the giant panda, a then unheard of and mysterious creature, to America. Just weeks after their wedding, Bill embarks on such an adventure but unfortunately loses his life along the way. Devastated, Ruth decides to continue Bill’s legacy and go on the journey for the panda herself. So in 1936, she sets out to Tibet to find what her husband died trying to find.

You can imagine her journey was not easy. Especially given the fact that she was a woman trying to make a name for herself in a man’s world. The terrain was rough, some of the cities she encountered were in turmoil and in the middle of war, and there were several other explorers along the way who would stop at nothing to take her down and beat her at her own game.

Ruth doesn’t escape the wiles of being a woman on her journey. She does fall in love with one of her partners in the expedition but forgets him completely when she lays eyes on the panda cub she will eventually bring to the States. After years of unrest, great obstacles, and relentless trekking, Ruth brings Su Lin to America. No other animal in history has gotten as much attention as Su Lin did.

The book reads almost as a diary of Ruth’s adventures. Even though the print was rather small and the chapters quite long, I loved reading and re-reading this book. There are also pictures included of  both Ruth and Su Lin, along with some of the sights she saw along the way.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that it gives you a history lesson without you truly realizing it. You learn all about what was going on in the world during the 30’s and 40’s, especially in countries like China, who were in the middle of war. You learn what it was really like for a woman in the midst of male domination. And you get to see how one little panda brings together a whole nation. And that, my friends, is worth a read.

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