Anatole France (1844-1924)

Trans.:  J.A.V. Stritzco;  Introduction:  James Branch Cabell

This story is narrated by Elme Laurent Jacques Menetrier, other wise known as Jacques Tournebroche (turn spit).  The latter cognomen results from Elme being employed from an early age as a spit turner at his father’s cookshop, the Queen Pedauque.  The text is the tale of Jacques’ experiences under the tutelage of Jerome Coignard, Latinist, scholar, historian, religious philosopher, raconteur, part-time rake, and dedicated wine bibber.

Jacques’ early education was an unsettled business conducted by a local monk, Friar Ange, a connoisseur of cheap wines, Attic salt, and a lover of ladies.  After the Friar is arrested for destroying a tavern, the Abbe Jerome Coignard offers to assume the duty of educating the boy, and by the time Jacques is nineteen years of age, he has attained a fair mastery of Latin and some Greek, and is familiar with a great variety of Biblical knowledge and theory.

One day while tending the cookshop fire, chatting with Jerome, a stranger dashes into the restaurant with an antique cane and starts thrashing the coals and tossing them about, yelling “Salamander” and cursing loudly.  Jerome and Jacques calm the tall thin newcomer and they all sit down while he lectures them about alchemy and the spirits of the air.  Salamanders and Sylphs, although invisible, abound in the atmosphere, and are constantly relating to and interfering with humans and their affairs.  Salamanders occasionally fall in love with men, while Sylphs pursue women for various purposes.  The man is Monsieur d’Asterac, the owner of a local derelict castle situated in a large number of untended and forested acres.  He invites Jacques and Jerome to visit, which they do, and soon hires them to help him decipher ancient Greek and Latin texts.  The two work assiduously at first, but as they never are paid, their enthusiasm begins to wane.

They find themselves making excuses for visiting the local village and inevitably run into trouble through sampling some of the local vintages and the concomitant association with miscellaneous sordid acquaintances.  One thing leads to another, as it happens, and the two escape the town, pursued by the city police, accused of property destruction and assorted malfeasances, and kidnapping.  (One of the girls, Catharine, fled with them.)  Returning to the castle, Jacques falls in love with Jahel, the daughter of Mosaide, a partner of d’Asterac’s, but subsequently discovers that she favors Jerome, among others.  One of the others is Anquetil, a drinking partner they had met in their last sortie on the village tavern.  The latter convinces her to elope with him, leaving her jealous and abusive father to accompany him to his estate near Lyons.  The two J’s agree to go along, but their plans are complicated by a stolen pearl necklace and d’Asterac’s plans to conjure up a Salamander for Jacques.  Also, another noble, owner of a nearby estate is irate at Anquetil for stealing his mistress, Catharine.

The intricate difficulties mount to a head and Jacques, Jerome, Anquetil, and Catharine, fearing arrest, speed south to Lyons in two carriages.  Near a hamlet, one of the vehicles overturns, injuring Jerome.  They’ve been pursued by Catharine’s former lover and Mosaide, and as a result of the accident, they are temporarily arrested by the authorities.  Jerome fades away, passing quietly a few weeks later, Catharine is returned for trial and is transported to America, Anquetil and Jahel continue on to his estate and Jacques goes home.

After settling in once more as “Tournebroche”, Jacques utilizes his education to get a job in a local book shop.  He leads a quiet life and when the owner, Blaizot, retires, assumes possession of the store.  In time, philosophers, authors, historians and religious figures frequent the business, but none of them are “as worthy as Jerome Coignard”.

I think this book would be quite different if read in the original language.  Although it was witty, picaresque, funny and startling, i had the impression that i wasn’t quite getting the full thrust of of the many literary, philosophical, and religious references. Some of the metaphorical implications of France’s intent seemed largely absent:  i could tell that a few of the apparently inane comments actually referred to events and concepts that might have seemed evident in the original, but not so much in English.  Even so, it was quite interesting and humorous and the characters were pretty Gallic:  behaving unlike English or American figures.  The word is ambiance, i guess, indicating a societal and cultural environment strikingly different than what i, anyway, have been familiar with.  There’s a sequel France wrote, “The Opinions of Jerome Coignard”, which i ordered and may do a post on at a later time.

France was an iconoclast.  He was a social activist, a communist, and did his best to advertise the failings of the government.  He actually was employed for a time in a bookshop owned by Blaizot, before he became a recognized and influential author.




Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

He was born in the familial manor of the Tolstoys near the village of Petrovskoe.  He had a tutor, Karl Ivanitch, a German professor who tickled Leo’s toes in the morning to get him up and had a penchant for making things out of cardboard.  Karl’s book collection was eclectic:  a History of Voyages, Manuring Cabbages in Kitchen Gardens, a History of the Seven Years’ War, and a Course of Hydrostatics.  Torn maps hung on the little schoolroom wall along with a blackboard and a stove.  Karl was not a tyrannical pedagogue;  he was kind and fond of his pupils, and sympathetic to their learning idiosyncracies, which included yelling, running around and occasional practical jokes.

Another intermittent occupant of the house was Grisha, a semi-moronic peasant who loaded himself with chains and spent his nights in the attic moaning to himself.  When Leo was ten, he and his brother Woloda traveled to Moscow with their father to stay with their grandmother and to become a bit more civilized.  But before they left the family went on a picnic.  The weather was hot, the butterflies fluttered about, birds celebrated life, the local river proffered fish and swimming, and there was a sort of hunt.  Leo was told to catch a rabbit but he became distracted with a colony of ants and some butterflies.  When the two carriages left the next day, crowds of serfs saw them off together with the mother in tears and various housemaids and servants waving pieces of white linen.

Arriving at grandmother’s house, there were more servants to sort them out and visitors came frequently to entertain the two boys while their father went out to earn money.  He was a professional gambler.  Being short, stout and rather ugly, Leo had some unfortunate social experiences which left him disconsolate and eremitic.  Once he forgot his gloves and had to wear an old dirty one at a dance;  this appeared to be a traumatic experience for him.  In the interim, Leo’s mother died and they returned to Petrovskoe.

Tolstoy considered that the second part of his history, Boyhood, began with his mother’s death.  After a period of mourning the family returned to grandmother’s house in Moscow, leaving the country place in the hands of servants.  A new tutor was hired, Monsieur St. Jerome, a young person with ambitions.  The immediate friction between St. Jerome and Leo resulted from the somewhat corporeal habit of the former’s teaching philosophy.  Leo became unmanageable, breaking glasses and mirrors and spending a lot of time hiding in closets.  He became aware of mathematics and much preferred that subject to history, which he tried to ignore.  By the age of fourteen, though, Leo, through observing servants, became cognizant of love, gradually achieved some scholastic kudos and actually became friends with St. Jerome.  During this period he learned the importance of social behavior and grew to be picky about his habiliments and his comportment in social venues.

His search for “moral improvement” came to occupy much of his time and interest.  He developed a few generalizations about behavior:  that the past could be eliminated by turning over a new leaf and that superior, upperclass demeanor was imperative if he desired the admiration of others.  He wrote a list of Rules for himself regarding his connection with the outside world and attempted to associate with the noble elements of society only.  This included some of his elder brother’s friends who drank a lot and conducted themselves in cynical fashion and never seemed to study.  Throughout this interval (which Leo labeled his “Youth” autobiographical segment) he became anxious over his upcoming university entrance exams and began studying more intensively.  As a result, he passed the exams in history, math and Latin and was admitted.  His father gave him money a carriage of his own, horses, and a uniform (he needed one to attend classes).

Leo didn’t study.  He made friends, visited other members of the nobility, went to a lot of parties, debated philosophy and politics with various sorts of advocate, and spent money.  As a result when the finals arrived an academic year later, he was “plucked” (British slang for flunking out).  It was only at this juncture that Leo began to suspect that there was more to life than behaving cynically, attending parties, and dressing well.  He writes a new set of “Rules” and at this point the book ends.

This was rather an eye-opener for me.  I’d never thought of Tolstoy as a real person with faults and characteristics, but just as a sort of mystical guru living in the countryside and writing novels.  But he was quite different than that.  He was one of those people who are terrific observers, and he possessed the  mathematical ability to arrange what what he perceived in logical order:  probably one of the traits that made him a world-class author.  Nevertheless he lacked a certain kind of perception:  the kind that might have enabled him to see beneath the surface of the upperclass society that he lived in.  I think he might have developed it later, but there’s no more autobiography to read, so the question remains unanswered.  The prose in this work is occasionally remarkable:  unlike the best Nature writers, he hadn’t the gift of reeling out pages of lucid and dramatic description, but he had the ability, in just a few sentences, to make a vista, a rainstorm, a sunlit meadow, explode into the reader’s brainpan.  It was quite surprising when it happened and the made the book scintillate briefly, like a bursting coal in the late ashes of a wood fire.  I enjoyed it.


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

This is a short collection of VW’s earlier short stories:

Phyllis and Rosamond :

This is a tale of five sisters, daughters of an upper middle class household in 19th C. London.  Three of them grow up and marry satisfactorily to status/bound husbands, but two, Phyllis and Rosamond stay at home knitting, planning parties, supervising servants and making social calls which mainly involves traipsing about between the hours of four and six and leaving cards:  the mind-deadening activities of the socially accepted.  On one of these excursions they visit Bloomsbury and react negatively to the declasse living habits of the artists and writers who live there;  the spontaneity and apparent freedom experienced by man and woman alike.  Back home, they resume their hidebound, bored lives, never for an instant resenting their virtual slavery.


The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn :

Rosamond Merridew is a medieval historian, English, and a searcher for forgotten manuscripts, diaries and journals.  On one of her excursions int the Yorkshire countryside, she visits the Martyn farm, a freehold occupied by the same family for more than 500 years.  After a certain amount of verbal byplay, she has the opportunity to read the journal of Joan Martyn, a daughter of the house written around 1500.  Reading the account, the events and incidents that Joan records, the daily chores, the rare excursions to the village all leap off the page and assume a 3-dimensional reality.  Rosamond gains insight to the terrors and joys of that remote time that are beyond her previous experience, and she is transported in an almost physical way back into Joan’s time.  The hunger-ridden outlaws in the nearby forest, the omnipresent highwaymen that threaten any traveler, the critically important business of selling their produce and grains, and the constant awareness of possible disasters all dominate the minds of the manor’s inhabitants.  (Reading this account, it was quite easy to understand Virginia’s ability to place herself, psychologically, in the shoes of chronologically remote persons, as in her book Orlando…)


A Dialogue on Mount Pentelicus

A group of English tourists descend Mt. Pentelicus in Greece, conversing about the ruins and statuary they’ve just explored.  Their comments, learned and otherwise, echo soundlessly off the marble walls as they pass along.  Coming to a rest stop, they continue their speculations unmindful of activity surrounding them.  A dirty monk with a load of firewood on his back passes them unnoticed, a spark of fire in his eye…


Memoirs of a Novelist

Miss Linsett is writing a biography of Mrs. Willatt.  Occupying two dense volumes, it tells the story of a plain lady who turned to writing both for a living and to justify her existence.  Willatt’s books were mundane and predictable for many years, until she began to explore and to be enraptured by the images of the soul and its relation to the world of the spirit.  In a sort of irredentist manner, she transformed herself into a kind of Madame Blavatsky with an enraptured audience.  She gradually acquired a  transcendentalist reputation with a following devoted to her prognostications and predictions and in awe of her attainment of “eternal harmony”.  VW’s estimation was that “Miss Linsett liked death because it gave her an emotion, and made her feel things for the time as though they meant something.”  I’m not sure exactly what VW was implying in this piece, but it had to do with unfulfilled living, i think…


This was a short sample of Virginia’s work. It reminded me of how very penetrating her genius was when describing the mental states and fundamental feelings characteristic of the personalities in her books.  She really was a very great writer and the stories cited above sort of provide the initial stepping stones to her later accomplishments:  The Waves, The Years, Orlando, and all the others…

The book was a publication of the Hesperus Press, founded in 2001 and intended as a publishing house for rare and classical works.



Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

The mid-nineteenth century, mid-European Principality of Grunewald.  Prince Otto has escaped from the group he was hunting with and has forged off on his own, over the boundaries of his own country into that of Gerolstein, a neighboring duchy, somewhat of a rival with Grunewald in a political sense .  The approaching dark finds him on the brink of a small river, bounded by dense pine forests, cheerfully gurgling and foaming its way over numerous waterfalls and cascades.  Idly riding along the bank, he sees a farmhouse in the near distance and decides to spend the night there.  He’s welcomed by an aging farmer and his son, peasants of the soil, embedded in their own ground for centuries.  But they, the Gottesheims, are in a quandary over land taxes, and are afraid of losing the farm through foreclosure.  Prince Otto offers to buy it for four thousand crowns.

Next morning, after a sealed bargain, Otto returns to his palace in Mittwalden, the capitol of Grunewald, to discover that a complicated political situation that has been developing over the last few years, is about to manifest unpleasant results.  Due to his non-interest in governmental affairs, the country has been ruled by Otto’s wife, Serafina, and her buddy, Colonel Gondremark with the result that a healthy revolutionary party has arisen, complaining of excess taxes and the loss of ancient social privileges.  Gondremark’s ambition is to invade Gerolstein and to found his own empire;  to that end he has persuaded Serafina to ramp up the military and to acquire machines of war:  cannon, powder, rifles and ammunition.  She doesn’t really like Gondremark much, but in Otto’s absence and his abandonment of his responsibilities, she finds it easier to believe the Colonel’s soothing excuses and to be carried along with his ambitions.

Otto, belatedly, realizes that his negligent conduct has endangered the state, but his overwhelming feelings of guilt lead him to an unbalanced perception of the situation:  he thinks he’ll just let himself be abdicated and thrown into prison, because that’s what he thinks he deserves.  But his friend Dr. Gotthold persuades him that not taking action is the refuge of a coward, so Otto dissolves the cabinet, foiling Gondremark’s war plans.  But Gondremark persuades Serafina to sign an edict calling for Otto’s imprisonment.

As a sort of side-light, Gondremark’s mistress, Mme Von Rosen is enlisted by Otto to steal four thousand crowns from the state treasury with which to complete the sale of of the river farm from Gottesheim.  Instead of stealing the money, and implicating Otto in treachery, she gives him the money from her own resources.

But Otto is sent to prison anyway by the nefarious plotting of Goldremark, and Serafina, awakening to the deep plots of her co-ruler, runs off into the extensive pine forests surrounding the capitol, gets lost, has an epiphanical encounter with nature, and realizes she loves Otto dearly in spite of his failures.

(Spoiler Alert)  Aided by Sir Crabtree, a passing English naturalist, she and Otto reunite on the road to Gerolstein, buy the farm and live happily ever after.  And a revolution burns the palace to the ground,  Goldremark is severely wounded, and a republic is formed.  Mme Von Rosen, who has been traveling with Crabtree, rushes to the aid of Godremark, whom she really loves, and the two escape across the border to the shores of Bohemia (as cited in Hamlet).

This is not one of Stevenson’s best efforts.  He took a lot of trouble with it, rewriting it three times, and fiddling endlessly with some of the unruly bits.  But the prose is magnificent, especially the descriptions of nature:  the trees, meadows, pine forests, rocky river beds, the sky and the weather.  His description of Serafina’s awakening during her solo trek through the woods is by itself worth reading the book for:  it’s some of the finest nature writing i’ve ever read.  The book mostly suffered from having too much in it, imo.  Creators of posts like this one learn pretty quickly that they can’t include every detail of a book if they are to produce a comprehensible result.  It’s a difficult process to master, and few, including me, can claim to have achieved it.  Writing clearly but not eliminating the interesting side-lights, is an art equivalent, possibly, to conducting a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring without letting the French Horns  drown out the flutes…


George Sand (1804-1876)

This is the story of Etienne DePardieu, narrated by him in the parish of Nohant, France, in 1828.  He was the son of a farmer whose wife died when Etienne was young.  Pere Brulet, his grand-uncle, lived with his grand-daughter Catharine (called Brulette by everyone).  Marie Picot (known as “Mariton”) and her son Joseph also lived in the Brulet household;  she was a sort of housemistress for the old man.  Brulette grew up to be a classy young lady;  Joseph was small and weak;  Etienne was burly and strong.

In the course of time, Mariton took a job with old Benoit at the Boeuf Couronne inn, Joseph and Etienne both lived as farm workers and odd job persons, Joseph being rather lackadaisical while Etienne could easily manage the work of two.

After over-imbibing at a local celebration, Joseph wandered off into the woods and got lost.  Etienne looked for him for hours,unsuccessfully.  After midnight, stumbling about in the dark, he began to pick up the faint sound of bagpipes coming from some distance away.  Circling around a large old oak tree, he tripped over something and, at the same time, heard the mysterious tinkling of tiny bells.  Suddenly enormous dark forms rose around him and crashed off through the brush, shaking the earth and reeking of coal dust.  Joseph, who had been the cause of Etienne’s fall, got up from where he’d been sleeping and they both made their way back through the dense forest, eventually arriving safely at home.

Joseph begins to disappear into the woods from time to time, and is occasionally observed sitting by himself tootling on a reed pipe, imitating bagpipe music and inventing his own tunes.  Etienne likes working in the fields and doesn’t think very positively about Joseph’s apparent idleness and ineptitude for physical toil.

One night, as Etienne and his father are sleeping, they hear the sound of tiny bells outside the house.  Etienne jumps out of bed and discovers a large mule rolling around in the oat field, crushing the plants.  With his dog, Satan, he captures the animal and leads him to an adjacent barren meadow, where he finds a herd of mules led by a small horse under the control of Huriel, their owner.  He’s a sort of gypsy who makes his living by hauling coal and iron back and forth through the Berry country (a province in southern France).  And, as Etienne comes to realize, he’s also a master bagpiper.  They come to grips over the damage done to the oat field and, although Etienne is big and strong, the muleteer is stronger;  he wins the fight, but they become friends afterwords.

Meanwhile, Joseph seems to have disappeared permanently, as he has not been seen for several weeks.  Etienne goes off to find him and runs into Huriel’s father’s encampment.  Bastien is a logger and lives in the mountains cutting timber and moving about.  He’s a master bagpiper as well.  Etienne and Joseph stay at the camp for several months, meeting Therence, Bastien’s daughter, and learning the techniques of timber falling and bagpipe playing.  Assorted incidents transpire, altercations with a rival logging outfit and chases through the woods over hills and through streams.  During one mass battle with a group of muleteers, Huriel accidentally kills Malzac, an evil instigator, and immediately decamps, escaping what he regards as certain doom at the hands of the authorities.

Before the fisticuffs, Brulette had arrived, and made herself very popular by helping Therence with household management and pitching in to wash dishes and taking care of clothing repair and the like.  She fell in love with Huriel, but after he leaves, she and Etienne return to Nohant to resume their former occupations.

Time passes, people change, and Huriel, abandoning the life of a muleteer and forgiven for the slaying of Malzac, meets Etienne, Brulette and friends at an old deserted castle to which they’ve come for a short vacation.  Etienne falls in love with Therence, Huriel declares himself to Brulette, and they sojourn back to Nohant.

But this is not the end of the story.  The balance involves a bagpipe contest, an election deciding the leadership of the local bagpipe association, political machinations, daring exploits in the dungeon of a nearby castle, fearsome devils with clutching talons and spiked leather coats, and surprising revelations regarding the parents of various children and adults.  In the end of course, problems are resolved, marriages occur, and rest is provided for the wicked, sort of…

This was the first book of George Sand’s i’ve read.  It was transcribed from the French by an unknown translator:  not listed in the front pages.  I had the sense that the French original might have been more fluid and poetic than the English version.  At times, it felt like a version of TinTin, or Asterix.  The book had a complicated plot, beyond what i’ve suggested above, with more characters, but it was never-the-less fairly easy to follow, and a satisfactory read.  I noticed that Sand had a gift for creating real people.  Meaning that her characters, while not explicitly described in words, came to seem real and material.  I’ve not read too many authors who were capable of this:  almost always, there’s a hint of unreality or two-dimensionality with most literary personae, but somehow Sand seems to have discovered a way to make her people stand out like individuals.  It added a great deal to the story, and to this reader’s comprehension of the various situations and events.


John Milton (1608-1674)

I was just reading some of the delightful letters of Horace Walpole to his various lady and ambassadorial friends.  Reading them is like sitting in an elegant 18th C. drawing room and listening to brilliant repartee from a college professor.  But i have this post to write about Milton’s major effort that i read this last week, so here goes…

Hell is about 24,000 miles from Heaven, according to Milton.  Sitting in a puddle of lava, Satan is whining to Beelzebub about the unfairness of having to live in such uncomfortable circumstances.  The pair fly over to the land, which is a sort of blasted heath made of hot rocks, and are pursued by legions of other demons following their lead.  After much conversation, Satan instructs them to erect a palace and a throne for him to sit in, to regularize their social interactions and establish a locus for future development.  Completing Pandemonium, the name of the city they have just built out of gold, they all celebrate with a marching band and a party until Satan calls for quiet and makes a speech.  He berates Heaven and God and vows revenge, calling for war and justice.  Moloch, Mammon and others all express their opinions during the post-speech assessment, the end result of which is that Satan declares that he’ll visit Heaven himself.  It has become known that God has made the Earth and put Adam and Eve on it, partly to give himself something to do while dealing with Satan.  One of the results of this decision had been a war in which a third of the angels sided with Satan because God wouldn’t honor them like he had his son.  Occupying the northern part of the shell on which Heaven was located (Milton apparently was a follower of the epicyclic theory of astronomy), Satan made cannons with which to bombard Abdiel’s troops (Abdiel was the general angel in charge of God’s army), but after they were employed against the opposition, Abdiel and his host picked up a lot of mountains and dropped them on Satan and his minions.

After losing the war, Satan and company were exiled to Hell.  Satan put into practice his plan of visiting the vicinity of Heaven, managing to open the nine gates of Hell because the gate-keepers were his own relations.  He forged his way through outer space, known as Chaos, dodging aliens and all the bric-a-brac floating around, until, arriving at the outermost shell on which Heaven is located (God lives in a cave, there), he discovered a hole in the shell which allowed him to fly down to earth.

Here, he employs his shape-shifting abilities to wander around making observations, and stumbles upon Eden, which God has made for the abode of Adam and Eve. Turning himself into a snake, he lurks…

Meanwhile, God has sent Raphael down to educate the Edenic pair.  Raphael teaches them seraphic history, and answers their questions regarding the omnipotence of God and how they should be conducting themselves in accordance with his wishes.  Milton, at this point, goes into how Eden was built.  He describes the Tigris river flowing underneath the enclosed valley, and how it’s diverted up through a hill to produce a fountain.  All sorts of exotic flora abound, and trees of all description, including the trees of Life and of Knowledge.  Raphael warns them against eating any fruit because ignorance in this case is better than learning.  He stresses that they owe their existence to God and they should be forever grateful and obedient.

But, as we know, the wily serpent persuades Eve to take a bite and as a result Adam does also, and they’re both driven out of Eden by Michael with his flaming sword.  They feel badly about this, but Michael makes them feel more comfortable with their future by teaching them that after millions of people have slaughtered each other, one will come, the Son of God, who will fulfill the covenant, and thereafter persons will have the opportunity to live in Heaven as angels.

There are several notable observations to make on this work.  Milton demonstrates almost scientific thinking when he underlines the events of his story by citing referents from Greek mythology, to which he is careful to allude in support of his narrative.  It is as if he wants to substantiate his history by using the  known authorities of the past to emphasize the truths that he’s promulgating.  The only difference between his methodology and that of science, is that science is built on verifiable data, not the works of ancient authors.  (This consideration might only be important to those who like playing with real, physical objects, like rocks and trees, but it is not intended to offend those who believe in the reality of imagination…).  Milton’s prose is astonishing, both for its lexigraphic comprehension, and its occasional density.  He apparently had a dictionary in his head as well as an encyclopedia.  It’s incredible how a blind person could have ever created such an amazing and complicated work of art.

In many ways, this long poem is an introduction to both the poetical imagination of the 18th C., and to the powerful influence that the preceding English Civil War had had on Milton and his society.  Images of cannon and explosions, ranks of armed warriors, ranks of soldiery, all find a place in the descriptions of the conflicts described as taking place on the outer shell of Heaven.  And Milton displayed familiarity with current astronomical thought, as well, referring to the planets (seven of them), and theorizing about celestial mechanics and the purpose of galaxies and the Milky Way (the latter being the freeway Satan built to convey his army to the Solar System).

I found this to be, not fascinating, but intriguing in its descriptions, poetic fluidity, and highly original construction.  I don’t think i’d wade through it again, buy i might try his “Paradise Regained”….  it was quite a trip…


Helen Thayer (1937-….)

She was born in New Zealand and was introduced to outdoor physical activity by climbing an 8,000 foot mountain, at the age of 9, with Edmund Hilary (of Everest fame).  At 13 she became entranced with Mongolia and the Gobi desert, but waited 50 years to explore it.  In the meantime she walked all over the earth, including a solo trek (with a doggie) to the magnetic north pole wherein she learned how to deal  in a civilized fashion with polar bears.  When the opportunity arose at last, she and her husband Bill spent a year driving around Mongolia just to get acquainted:  arranging for camels and visiting herding families and learning about the required regulations and permissions.  They sort of had to bribe/persuade the official in charge of internal exploration, mainly because of their ages:  she was 63 and Bill was 74!

To make things worse, after the trip was all set up for the next year (2001), the couple was rear-ended on a freeway in Seattle and they both suffered traumatic and rather severe back and neck injuries.  Not wanting to forgo the ambition of a life-time, Helen started rehabilitation immediately and refused to abandon the idea of walking across the Gobi desert.  Eventually she was able to walk with the aid of two trek poles and they forced themselves to continue with their plans.

The pair arrived in Ulan Bator to keep an appointment with a local pilot (a bi-lingual Mongolian), who flew them to the western border.  The plan was to walk in stages:  at three pre-arranged locations, the pilot was to meet them and re-supply them with food and water.  The total distance they walked was 1600 miles from the eastern to the western border, and the rendezvous points were about every 500 miles or so.  There was a short period of adjustment during which the Thayers and their companions (Tom and Jerry) got used to each other, but after that they all worked more or less effectively as a team.

In spite of their injuries, they averaged about 20 miles a day, later increasing that to about 25 although at times due to lack of water (at one point Tom felt like having a roll and broke most of the plastic jugs the water was in, leaving them with only four gallons to cover about a hundred miles) they covered almost fifty miles in a 24 hour period to avoid dying from thirst.

The terrain ranged from sand and rock to gravel and mud, with occasional mini-oases with minimal vegetation which sometimes held a small amount of water.  There were mountain ranges to cross, wind-storms to weather, and lots of snakes and scorpions, not to mention nasty border guards.  They traveled close to the southern border for quite a while as it was a more accessible route.   The border was closely monitored by the Mongolians partly because of smugglers and partly because Mongolia and China didn’t like each other very much.  Border forts were about 100 miles apart and patrols connected them on a scheduled basis.  At one point Helen and Bill were arrested as spies and were threatened with jail until Helen lost her temper and chewed out one of the officials for being so disrespectful to their elders.  Apparently the tactic was effective, because the chagrined officer wrote them a permission slip that allowed them access to forts and trails all along the border.

The Thayers were in constant pain during the entire trip due to the automobile accident in Washington.  They told stories to each other and sang songs to distract themselves from the agony they were suffering.  They almost abandoned the trek several times, but couldn’t bring themselves to leave.  Quite a few times they managed to rest for a day or so at the gers they encountered.  A “ger” is a Mongolian tent-like structure  used by the nomadic families as a movable house.  It contains everything the natives need for maintaining their lives and caring for their sheep and/or goat herds.  Helen had acquired a little of the Mongolian language the year before, so they could relate to the people fairly well, but to be sociable, both had to drink fermented mare’s milk and consume various sorts of soup made out of sheep fat and occasionally rotten sheep meat.  Once Bill had to dash out of the ger to barf.  The Mongolian family found that to be riotously humorous.

They kept to their plane-meeting timetable pretty well, only once missing their pilot  by about a day.  But at the very end, when they were walking night and day with very little rest for several days, and they had finally reached what they thought was their goal, a rider dashed up with a message from the pilot saying that he couldn’t land at that particular spot and would they please walk another 90 miles farther east.  So, dogged, single-minded and tenacious, they summoned up what blood they had left and forged on and finally arrived at last, very close to the eastern border.

This was an exciting story.  I’d never heard of Helen Thayer until i read this book.  She and her husband have operated an adventure out-reach business, leading tours and mini-expeditions, giving lectures and promoting physical health for some decades.  They have a farm near Seattle, and travel widely.  Lately they’ve been involved in charitable work in Africa.

The account was well-written and exciting, to the point that i was encouraging them to quit because of the difficulty and pain they were experiencing, but i was compelled to trek along with them because they were so courageous and determined.  I’d recommend any book written by Ms. Thayer:  she’s an accomplished author and had interesting views on the environment and popular mores of the Mongolians.