Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters -- The Early Years

by Jane Goodall

edited by Dale Peterson

Published by Houghton Mifflin

384 Pages, 2000

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Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley


Jane Goodall is arguably the most well-known, well-respected, well-liked woman alive today. As Stephen Jay Gould points out, "Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees represents one of the Western world's great scientific achievements." But how did she get here? What seeds were planted in her imagination as she was growing up? What motivated her? Scared her? Delighted her? Made her grow? Africa In My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters -- The Early Years sheds some light on those questions in Goodall's own strong and recognizable voice.

I really do simply adore Kenya. It is so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt a stirring in my blood.

These are Goodall's words in the spring of 1957, finding early phrases for the passion that would come to dominate her life. The book is a self-portrait of sorts, in letters and commentary, of her early years, from childhood to the publication of In the Shadow of Man. Much has been documented of her life after that groundbreaking work came into print, including Goodall's latest, a spiritual autobiography entitled, Reason for Hope. Little, however, has been written about her early formative years. Until now.

We see her at all the stages of her life. Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall wrote a letter to her mom when she was around 8-years old: "Darling Mummy, the day befor yestoday Mr and Msis Spens broght a big dog called Jacky who is going to live here untill Uncle Micel come back. I dont know how to spell that word." In 1946 she saw her father off: "It was jolly good fun. We arrived in Southampton and went to the wrong docks, & met a policeman with dermithitis or some such disease on his face." She discusses her job in 1954: "For one thing I am working for Olly up at the clinic... I proffer my services for a mere kick-in-the-pants -- 2/6 an hour; but even that is better than nothing, & is given for a good cause." On her days at Oxford: "I have decided to get another little water turtle like Jacob and install the vivarium in my new room. Later on, when I have got to know the landlady a bit better -- and the woman who cleans -- I may try to keep a hamster..." She writes of her first impressions of African wildlife: "Oh yes, I have seen some giraffe!! Very near the edge of the road -- one was in the road & walked away in a most condescending & stately fashion." She describes some of her first excitement with seeing chimpanzees: "I've discovered more... I've seen them walking along paths, I've seen them resting under trees, I've seen them playing... And, down in one of the cool river valleys I saw just a little baby, peering at me, & then he was joined by the most hideous female with jet black face & beetling brow bridge." She begins to love these creatures: "What about my chimps. Oh, they are so fabulous and wonderful that's it's hardly possible to believe it's true."

Within these pages she grows from girl, to young woman, to woman. She meets the legendary anthropologist, Louis Leakey, who sent her to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve on Lake Tanganyika, where she immersed herself in the lives of wild animals as no one has done before. Africa in My Blood is an immediate link into her life. It is at turns funny, sad, heart warming and powerful. The book is a remarkably strong collection from a woman well worth remarking. | April 2000


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.