Many thanks to Powell's for having me as a guest blogger this week, and for helping kick off my speaking tour for Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure
in December. We had a great crowd, including a special guest, who I'll get to in a bit.
What's CHA about? Ah, the elevator pitch: fifteen seconds to describe your project before the bell rings and the doors slide open. It's a mouthful, but I've whittled the plot down to two sentences: It's about retracing the route of the British explorer Ewart Grogan from one end of Africa to the other. The 26-year-old Cambridge dropout traveled 5,000 miles from South Africa to Cairo in 1898-1900 to prove to his beloved's jealous stepfather that he was worth her hand in marriage, and I followed in 2007, right before I married my wife, in part to help face down my own pre-marriage jitters.
So — an adventure-travel-historical-romance-memoir. Simple enough, right?
The book is really three stories woven together, which made it a particular challenge to write: there's the story of Grogan's two-year trek, bracketed by his pre- and post-journey life; the story of my own two-month trip by public transportation from South Africa to Sudan; and the history of my relationship with my wife Laura, from the moment we met through our snowy wedding day and beyond. At times this braided structure had me wishing I'd picked some nice, simple narrative, like the unknown history of light bulbs or something, but I'm happy with how it turned out.
I first heard about Grogan in a book called Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language by psychologist Robin Dunbar. It's a fascinating read about how language may have developed to let people, or primates, share interesting tidbits about others in the family group, instead of to help coordinate hunting parties. (In other words, we owe our ability to talk to females instead of males.) It has lot of finger-snapping tidbits like Dunbar's number, the theoretical largest groups of people you can have meaningful social relationships with at one time — around 150, he says — as well as this, in a chapter about the lengths males will go to impress females:
The young Captain Ewart Grogan walked the 4,500-mile length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo in 1899 to gain the hand of the woman he loved. Her family had dismissed him as a ne'er-do-well who would be unable to keep their daughter in the manner to which they thought she should be accustomed. Grogan banked on the fame (if not the fortune) that a dramatic adventure would bring him to persuade them to reconsider.
How could you not be hooked? And in a strange way it fit my situation perfectly. I'd known that my girlfriend Laura was The One for a long time, but I still had a bad case of commitment cold feet, even after I popped the question and she said yes. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was spending two of the last three months before our wedding bumping through eight African countries by bus, bike, boat and bush taxi.
That's my story. The rest of this week I'll be exploring side channels and filling in background information that didn't make it into the book. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope you'll come along.
Oh — the special guest? One of Grogan's great-grandsons, who just happens to live near Portland. Small world, huh?