Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Monte Reel's "Between Man and Beast"

Monte Reel is a former South America correspondent for the Washington Post, and he also reported for the newspaper in Washington and Iraq. His first book, The Last of the Tribe (2010), chronicles the story of the last surviving member of an indigenous tribe in the Amazon rainforest. After spending seven years in Argentina, he recently moved to the Chicago area, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

Reel applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm, and reported the following:
Ah, the famous “Page 99” test! I’d heard Ford’s quote before, but I never thought of applying his test to my own book (if I had, I might have tinkered with the page to rig this exercise in my favor. Alas…).

This book, Between Man and Beast, is a nonfiction narrative about the discovery of the gorilla in the mid-nineteenth century. The story traces that discovery’s impact on the evolution debate (it helped push it out of academia and to the masses), racial politics (the young explorer at the center of the story hid his African ancestry, while watching his specimens used to advance ugly racial theories and slurs), and even pop culture (his adventures provided the seed of the King Kong story, and they deeply influenced the birth of the action-adventure genre).

So let’s flip to page 99…

From the first line of the page, we’re thrust into a very famous episode in the early evolution debate: Thomas Huxley, in Darwin’s corner, has squared off against Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at a scientific meeting in Oxford in 1860. This debate is now considered a milestone: Huxley triumphed, according to almost all modern accounts, and Wilberforce was silenced and humiliated. But by the middle of page 99, we learn that the outcome of the debate was far from clear to the participants at the time. “I think I thoroughly beat him,” Wilberforce concludes.

By mid-page, we also discover that Richard Owen, a famous anatomist who had positioned himself as Huxley’s (and, by proxy, Darwin’s) greatest scientific adversary, also considered the debate very much alive. After the Oxford debate, both Huxley and Owen work harder than ever to prove their cases. Owen believes that what he really needs to prove his argument is a specimen of the recently discovered gorilla – believed at that time to be man’s closest relative. The page ends with the focus on Owen:
Within a couple months of the meeting, he’d receive a letter that began, “My dear Sir, let me present you with a gorilla skin.” The letter ended with the words “Sincerely, Paul du Chaillu.”
So I guess page 99 is representative enough. Du Chaillu is the young man at the center of the story. He is stumbling out of the forests of Africa and straight into a cultural debate that he’s not really prepared to enter. The page sets up Owen and Du Chaillu’s unlikely alliance, which will result in the young explorer traveling to London with his newly stuffed gorillas, which in turn will spark a massive public furor surrounding the “hellish dream creature” – and all sorts of other dominoes will fall, on both sides of the Atlantic. So let's flip to page 100...
Learn more about the book and author at Monte Reel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue