2

Book Review: Mary Russell, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt

Greetings from Munster, Indiana, where I am on the first leg of my trip back home, hopefully arriving tomorrow evening. I drove myself and my dad three hours and ten minutes to this Hampton Inn in the Indiana-based suburbs of Chicago. 10-11 hours to go tomorrow, and I hope I get to relax for most of it.

What do you know, I finished a book. I initially got it for a project and it came all the way from UW-Milwaukee. Since it’s due in January, before I get back, if I wanted to read it for pleasure I either had to a) hurry it up and read it in one day, or b) return it to the library, sadly never to reenter my hands, a title forgotten among the legions of books I have yet to read.

So in a turn toward the nonfiction market, I present The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, by Mary Russell.

Cover of "The Blessings of a Good Thick S...

The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt‘s interesting and unusual title comes from a quote from Mary Kingsley, a nineteenth-century woman traveler to Africa. It is quite appropriate, given that the book is about female adventurers. I’m not talking about suffragettes – these were women who risked their reputations and their lives to pursue their dreams of travel and exploration, most of them doing so in a time when it was not considered ladylike to travel unaccompanied, without a man. There are an immense number of women travelers mentioned, but I’ll give you the highlights:

The book begins with the story of Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem. The theme of women exploring in the name of religion comes up a lot, with the great Hester Stanhope coming to mind, traveling through the Middle East dressed as a man. Over in Tibet, you had Annie Taylor who just wanted to live her life cloistered away in a city where she could just be religious and not have to worry about anything else, and the sad story of Susie Rijnhart, a Canadian adventurer who lost everything in Tibet, including her husband and son, but found her way back home to Canada and then had the courage to go back AGAIN – and of course, she didn’t make it this time. These were the first two Western women to see Tibet, a feat in and of itself.

The only sections I didn’t care for were the ones on mountain climbers and on more contemporary women, women that the author knew personally when she wrote the book in 1986. It just didn’t seem fair to group her friends with the likes of Mary Kingsley and Hester Stanhope.

What I always find interesting are not the women who survived the dangers, but the women who died exploring, making them legends up until the moment of her death. Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and her fateful round-the-world journey, but few know of her frenemy Amy “Johnnie” Johnson (not to be confused with the original Pink Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson) who set some flying records of her own. Later, her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary in England under mysterious circumstances and her body was never recovered. Alexine Tinne, who did some crazy exploration in Africa, getting further than anyone of her time, dragged her mother, her aunt, and two maids along with her – all of whom died somewhere along the way. Stupidly brave Alexine went back to Europe, and, nonplussed, moved on to her next mission: crossing the Sahara. As the story goes, she was killed by a Tuareg member of her party, stabbed in several places, and left to die in the desert. Her body was never found. Mary Kingsley was buried at sea, in the South African waters on which she died. Therein lies the lesson I took from the book. You get the feeling that these women didn’t do it just for the fame, the money, the notoriety – but because they were passionate about the world around them, and because “it was there.”

But then, there’s Sophie Heath, a flash-in-the-pan aviatrix from the 1920s who survived risky flights and stunts only to die of injuries she sustained after falling down the stairs of a bus in London.

Oh well. Stabbings in the Sahara, somersaults on an airplane wing, slippery steps on a bus – we all gotta go sometime.

But if that last thing happens, make sure my obituary includes all my adventures, and make some up to impress the world. It doesn’t matter what they are, as long as they’re earth-shattering. Surprise me.