Author: Roy Chapman Andrews, American naturalist, explorer, and director of the American Museum of Natural History
Year Published: 1943
Places Explored: The Arctic, The South Pacific, Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia
My Rating: ♦♦♦♦◊
I first heard of Roy Chapman Andrews about eight years ago, when I was in high school and picked up a book called Dragon Hunter which, on the back cover, said it was about the expeditions by the man who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones. I read most of that book and found it really interesting back then, so when I started this travel memoirs project, I thought I’d see what Roy Chapman Andrews himself might have written about his life.
He wrote several books, including some for children, and this one seemed to be the most popular and the only one that was about his life and not a specific expedition, so I chose this one.
Overall I really enjoyed this book. It really delivers on the “adventure” – following his journey from boyhood in Wisconsin to New York City, where he worked toward his dream of becoming an explorer for the American Museum of Natural History. Then it was onto whaling ships in the Arctic and Japan, surviving like Robinson Crusoe on an uninhabited island, exploring untouched jungles and mountains of Korea, tiger hunts, hobnobbing with Wall Street elites, his world-famous Central Asiatic Expeditions in the Gobi (where the first dinosaur eggs were found), brushes with political turmoil in China, and finally his retirement at Pondwood Farm.
He isn’t a great writer (as he says himself in the book, “I realized before long that it was fun to relate my experiences but that I’d never be a great writer; I couldn’t produce literature. All I could do was set down whatever story I had to tell as simply as possible. That is all I have tried to do ever since.”), but there’s a simplicity and sincerity to his style that I really liked. I never felt like he had exaggerated anything in the story–not that he needed too, he had quite an exciting life!–and approached all of his topics with honesty and humor.
The time period and some of the people that he associated with during his life were really interesting too. At one point he calls President Roosevelt “Ted” and he worked with some other important names while obtaining funding for the museum and his expeditions. It was such a different era back then – and with that came a few things that wouldn’t pass for politically correct today. A few of his descriptions of Asian people (especially the Japanese) are a bit off-putting, but it was somewhat understandable as he was writing this memoir in the midst of World War II.
One thing that surprised me a bit about this book was how bittersweet reading it was, and the fact that it made me a bit sad. I definitely feel like Roy Chapman Andrews was sort of the “last of his kind”… His spirit reminded me the great Victorian-era explorers, but by the time he retired there weren’t very many unknown places left in the world. He makes several comments to that himself in the book – “Each trip around the world seemed to reduce the globe in size.” He also says,
As I read of the present war, I realize that no unknown corners of the world remain. What were the ends of the earth years ago appear suddenly in the headlines of every newspaper. The jungles of New Guinea, Borneo, and the Salween valley were mysterious and unknown. Today, they are the battlefronts of the world. Truly the romance and adventure of exploration are gone forever!
As I said, reading passages like that made me feel sad and maybe even a bit jealous – that the world when he knew it was a more exciting place than it is now. With satellite imagery everywhere has been mapped, and with the advent of air travel there’s almost nowhere left that really needs “exploring”! However, he does end on a bit happier note with his final quote, ensuring us that, “always there has been an adventure just around the corner — and the world is still full of corners.” Overall I’d recommend this book as a fun read about a really interesting (and somewhat lesser known) American adventurer!
Always there has been an adventure just around the corner – and the world is still full of corners.
My heart lay in the desert and I hoped soon to go back to the sunsets and the sandstorms.
I wished only to be free to leave at a moment’s notice for the ends of the earth.
Ends of the Earth – Roy Chapman Andrews
Across Mongolian Plains – Roy Chapman Andrews
Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions – Charles Gallenkamp