Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal

Recognition of known places is an appeal factor that Mark Seal probably discounted in writing Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa. Most American readers have not been to Africa, except via wildlife documentaries, such as the ones produced by Alan and Joan Root in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In this heart-wrenching biography, Seal recounts the life of Joan Root, her marriage to Alan, a brilliant but reckless cinematographer, and her tragic murder against the background of Africa's Great Rift Valley, a place of stunning scenery and desperate people. The exotic setting will be a plus for many readers.

However, I have been to Tanzania and Kenya and was taken back there by the story. I know the dining room in the lodge above the Ngorongoro Crater where Alan first met Joan. I was sick the long hour that I sat there sipping tonic water, which may have burned the room into my memory. I also know the switchbacks that they descended to get into the crater for a game drive on their "first date." Throughout the book are great places I have visited - the Serengeti, Samburu, Mt. Kenya, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo, and Arusha - as well many others that I would someday like to visit. So for me, the appeal is familiarity.

In Wildflower, Seal offers readers a sympathetic look at a woman who was very loyal to an unworthy husband. Joan did everything for Alan and never really gave up her hope that he would some day return. I found her very admirable, but it would be interesting to know how other readers react.

Most importantly, Wildflower is a riveting story with elements of adventure, romance, and crime narratives. Because he tells about his visits with her friends and includes many quotes from Joan's letters to her mother, the account also has an intimate feel. I think readers will enjoy this quick reading book.

Seal, Mark. Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa. Random House, 2009. ISBN 9781400067367

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