I am not tall.
I do not have bushy red hair.
I like moss, but hey, I like lots of plants.
I do not live with my father.
I have never been to Tahiti. Maybe someday.
Today is not a rainy Philadelphia day in 1825.
All true statements. Today.
But all these statements were true for me last week, as I immersed myself in Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel. Her craft as a storyteller beckons from every page, drawing the reader into the life of Alma Whittaker. The long life of Alma Whittaker—from before she came into the world to her dowagerhood.
Like the road of life, this story is long and winding. When I finished, I felt as if I'd read three books, not one. I first met a poor English lad, Henry Whittaker, who left his hopeless life to go to sea and seek his fortune. He found it in the Pacific Islands along with a lifetime passion for botany.
Cut to several years later. Henry was now a wealthy Philadelphian and a world-renown botanist. He doted on his only child, the motherless Alma. She shared his brilliance and his studies, but not his travels. She did not leave the city; still her light shone through as she became a recognized botanist for her studies about mosses—plants that thrived and held a world of mystery right outside her door. An interesting note: her early bylines carried her initials only. Who would read a scientific article if it were written by a woman?
A dreary life? Yes. "...she was something like a book that had opened to the same page every single day for thirty years—but it had not been such a bad page."
Then a younger man entered her life and things were almost never the same. Adventures set in. After a bit, a disappointed Alma sent her new husband away to the family estates in Tahiti. Then, her father died. Now unencumbered, Alma found adventures of her own around the world. One thing didn't change. She remained a clear-thinking, dedicated scientist right into her final years.
This book offers a fascinating reflection of a life and more. The world of the nineteenth century springs off of the pages. Further, this is an easy approach to a quick science course in the development of what we now know as Darwinism. We learn that Darwin wasn't the only one to develop such a theory, and guess what? Alma was one of the others.
An intriguing book, it is also challenging. Perfect for a weekend devoted to reading. Just make sure it is a long weekend.
Elizabeth Gilbert knows nature—she grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut. A prolific writer, she is best known for her memoir, Eat Pray Love. In New Jersey, she writes and operates an import store with her husband. Visit her website.
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