Nov 12, 2010

Gorillas in the Mist

by Dian Fossey

I feel like it's been a while since it took me so long to get through a book. And one I was looking so forward to reading, too! It became clear to me pretty quick that Gorillas in the Mist is different in focus from most of the other non-fiction I've read about biology fieldwork; perhaps that's why I struggled through it. Or it could just be the distractions I've been facing lately, and the lack of reading time. But it felt like every time I picked up the book after a break, I had difficulty getting back into it again. Most books I read about biologists going out into the wild to study animals have a similar pattern. They describe how the person became interested in their particular subject, preparations required to get into the field, their frustrating and exciting first encounters with the wild animals, subsequent observations of the animal's habits and lives, and at the end usually concerns come up about conservation and efforts to protect the wildlife from threats by man.

It felt to me like this book was written in an entirely different manner. Nothing wrong with that, it was just hard for me to focus on. From the very start it seems like Fossey jumped right into her mission to protect the gorillas. I felt like I was reading details about her anti-poaching patrols and wranglings with local people long before she talked about observing the actual gorillas. In a way this makes sense; how could she study the animals if they were being killed? of course she immediately took action to keep them safe (this was not only by having poachers arrested, confiscating their tools and removing their traps, but also actively herding gorilla groups away from dangerous areas).

Result was that the actual animals themselves seemed to take second stage in her book. Most interesting I found were reading about the gorillas' family lives, group organization, what they ate, how they traveled, etc. I learned all sorts of things. I didn't know before that gorilla groups will shift, with individuals moving in and out of different families for various reasons. I didn't know gorillas eat mostly foliage (so ones in zoos fed lots of vegetables and fruit get obese!) and also sometimes their own dung (yes, even in the wild, so Fossey speculated it was to get more nutrients or organisms that aided digestion). I didn't know that to catch a gorilla infant (for illegal pet trade or zoos) often many members of a gorilla group will be destroyed because the adults will give their lives attempting to protect their babies. Very sad.

But all these facts I felt like I gleaned between reading about other stuff. The narrative also jumped around a bit, so sometimes I was reading about one animal as an adult, and then later on about its infancy. That was confusing. Also, when the book did discuss individual gorillas it did so in a broad sense, describing their relationships with other animals over a span of decades in just a few pages. So I never really got a sense of the gorillas as individuals (which is what I so love about Jane Goodall's books on the chimpanzees). It felt more like reading a scientific report interlaced with the story of Fossey's urgent anti-poaching campaign. Even when her beloved Digit died, I felt horrified and sad, but in a detached way. It didn't hit me with gut sorrow like reading about the deaths of animals in other books, who had become individuals with personalities to me.

I feel rather glum to say all this; overall it is an interesting book full of information and an amazing story about one woman's dedication and hard work to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. But it just wasn't the best read for me. I never felt entirely enthralled or involved in the narrative; and I missed that. (I know it sounds odd to be enthralled with non-fiction about wildlife; but I often am!)

Rating: 3/5 ........ 325 pages, 1983

You must read Nymeth's thoughtful review of this book on Things Mean a Lot. Has anyone else written a post about it? I couldn't find any others, as my search online kept just pulling up reviews of the recent movie production.


Eva said...

That's too bad it didn't turn out better for you. :( Sy Montgomery did a group of biography of Fossey, Goodall, and Galdikas. I gave it a go, but it was a bit too adoring for me (when I read a biography, it drives me crazy if the biographer fawns all over her subject). It did leave me curious about them though!

Chandra said...

Well, in any event your review is fascinating! So sad about the poaching :(

Nymeth said...

I agree that this was as much of a conservationist manifesto as it was a book about the gorillas themselves, but that was part of why I liked it so much if that makes sense. I'm sorry you didn't get on with it better!

Jeane said...

Eva- I know what you mean. I think I'd have a hard time stomaching that kind of bio too (although I do like Sy Montgomery's writing!)

Chandra- funny, sometimes the things I write about books I didn't like too much are what others find most interesting to read!

Nymeth- I can totally understand how the book would appeal to other readers. I know most readers aren't as into all the details about the animals like I am. It just didn't work well for me this time.

Eva said...

I loved the other Montgomery book I read (Spell of the Tiger), so I was surprised I didn't connect w/ this one. I want to read her other stuff still though!