The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilder­ness

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - LINDA THORLAKSON

Dale Peter­son Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press (APRIL) Hard­cover $29.95 (240pp), 978-0-520-29771-5

Jane Goodall’s re­search cen­ter on the shores of a Tan­za­nian lake pul­sates with the pas­sions, per­ils, and prom­ises of the 1960s in Dale Peter­son’s The Ghosts of Gombe. The book seeks to solve the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of a re­searcher by recre­at­ing life at Gombe back when hu­mans, an­i­mals, and ge­o­log­i­cal spheres col­lided on a ledge over­look­ing obliv­ion.

Gombe was a place where iso­la­tion was the norm but where an­i­mal and hu­man in­ter­ac­tions re­sulted in a se­duc­tive kind of ca­ma­raderie. There, Ruth Davis died mys­te­ri­ously; her death haunted her col­leagues for decades. Was she pushed? Did she fall? Did she jump? The cir­cum­stances of her un­timely death be­come less cru­cial to an­swer­ing these ques­tions than do those of her life.

Gombe swiftly be­comes more a per­son than a place. The ridges, val­leys, peaks, and streams are the outer skin of a body hous­ing in­sects, fish, snakes, and mam­mal sys­tems. Changes in one sys­tem rip­ple through the oth­ers.

Gombe’s story is told through shift­ing points of view that max­i­mize the best van­tage points. Upon ap­proach­ing Lake Tan­ganyika from the air, a gi­ant rift in the earth’s crust is seen through the eyes of a ge­ol­ogy stu­dent. In­di­vid­u­als and the com­mu­ni­ties to which they be­long are in­tro­duced through the per­cep­tions of oth­ers.

Data is gath­ered through in­ter­views, ref­er­ence books, archives of camp records, jour­nals, letters, and writ­ten rec­ol­lec­tions. It in­fuses the nar­ra­tive with au­then­tic­ity with­out im­ped­ing its depth, de­vel­op­ment, or flow.

In this story within a story within a story, re­searchers must dis­pense with purely sci­en­tific meth­ods if they and the chimps they study are ever to re­late to one an­other as any­thing more sub­stan­tial than ghosts. Like­wise, had Peter­son not in­jected his own voice into The Ghosts of Gombe, Ruth’s ghost may never have ven­tured close enough to let her truth be known.

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