Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson by Osa Johnson


I've owned I Married Adventure since 2008, just before I moved to Texas.  We were still living in Florida and we made one last trip to DisneyWorld before we left.  Believe it or not, there are excellent books for sale all over the Disney parks in the gift shops, and not just about Disney characters and animation.  In particular, the Epcot theme park has tons of great books in the World Showcase -- nearly every country represented has books from or about that country.  I actually bought this book in a little gift shop where they had a lot of African gifts.  I think I had just read West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and was hoping it something similar.

So, this is the memoir of Osa Johnson, who was born in Kansas in 1894 and was a world traveler along with her husband, photographer and filmmaker Martin Johnson, in the early 20th century.  They had amazing adventures.  It's a really interesting story, and though I did have a few issues with the book, I'm sorry I took so long to read it.

Martin was born in a small town in Kansas in 1884.  Martin was fascinated by the cameras his father had in the family's jewelry shop, and was a self-taught photographer.  He got expelled from school at sixteen, and decided to see the world and make his fortune with his camera.  After an unsuccessful attempt on his own, he had a big break saw a magazine advertisement from the author Jack London, who was building a ship and was planning to circumnavigate the globe.  Amazingly, Martin got a spot on the ship, despite having no sailing experience. 

Though they didn't quite make it around the globe (London suffered health problems and had to cut the trip short), Martin was determined to continue with his travels.  He started speaking about his amazing voyage to groups, and began to attract enough of an audience that he rented out theaters back in Kansas, where met his wife Osa, nine years his junior.  After a whirlwind courtship, they married, and Osa joined Martin on his speaking tours, where they struggled to earn enough to go on another photography tour.  Through hard work and determination, they became an amazing team, and created groundbreaking photographs and films about wildlife (and to a lesser extent, native people), mostly in the South Pacific and Africa. 

Overall, I liked this book.  I'm really fascinated by adventures stories.  I liked reading about all the obstacles they overcame, with weather, terrain, and technical issues with early cameras. Some of their adventures were quite harrowing and even a little gruesome.   In the South Seas, where they sought out natives who'd had little contact with Western culture, some of whom were actual cannibals and head-hunters.  (I used to think this was a myth.  It is not.)  Osa and Martin also met some really fascinating people, including legendary explorers and even royalty.  For example, while on an extended trip in Kenya (then British East Africa) in 1925, they ended up meeting the Duke and Duchess of York -- the future George VI of England (for us Yanks, that's the same monarch from The King's Speech, who took over when his brother abdicated and was the father of the current monarch, Elizabeth II). 

Osa Johnson and a friend. 
However, I did have a few issues with the book.   It was first published in 1940, and as you might expect, some of the attitudes toward other racial groups are not what they are today and some of the references to native peoples is occasionally tinged with racism, though it isn't constant.  And though Osa states repeatedly that she and Martin are primarily photographers interested in recording animals and are appalled by big-game hunters who merely want trophies, she does discuss instances in which animals get shot, though it's always for food, or in self-defense.  It's probably hypocritical of me to be uncomfortable about this, as I'm not a vegetarian.  Martin and Osa were concerned even back in the 1920s about endangered species, but there's quite a few instances of shooting animals.

The writing in this book isn't what I'd call great -- Osa has kind of a gee-whiz style, not what I'd call lyrical or beautiful.  I wish she'd been more specific about dates, though they're not altogether left out.  Also, the end of the book felt rather rushed, and it just sort of stops.  There's a copy of a news article at the end which explains why, but I still felt a bit unsatisfied.  This book isn't a beautiful, lyrical example of travel writing, but overall, it's very entertaining if you can ignore some of the outdated attitudes of that time period. 

2 comments:

  1. What an interesting couple--sounds like a good book, and representative of the time in what written. I understand your reservations, though--it's jarring to read racial comments from someone whom you think should really know better.

    I don't have a particularly adventurous spirit myself but I love to read about others' experiences.

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  2. I think my husband and I would enjoy this book; we read a lot of books by earlier travelers.

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