Book review- “Between Man and Beast” by Monte Reel

between man and beast coverAt this point in time it’s probably safe to say that the idea we evolved from monkeys is a widely-believed idea. But the idea didn’t gain real widespread acceptance until fairly recently in terms of the Earth’s age. It took a young upstart named Charles Darwin to suggest that maybe, just maybe, animals evolve over time.

When Darwin first proposed the idea, though, many naturalists were unconvinced. What men of science really, truly wanted was some evidence of the so-called “missing link.” Sure, humans shared a lot of traits with chimps, but how could Darwin explain why humans now look so different?

This “missing link” was the gorilla, a creature that few North Americans or Europeans had ever actually glimpsed, let alone captured and analyzed for science. That’s where Paul Du Chaillu comes in.

Du Chaillu is a name that probably won’t ring any bells now, but during his time he was a world sensation. A man of mysterious origins, he would go on to partake in a huge expedition of Africa, a continent that few explorers ever ventured very deep into. Unlike explorers of the time, Du Chaillu wasn’t worried about the “white man’s burden” and actually befriended native Africans of both low and high status on the continent.

During the expedition he sent back hundreds of previously uncategorized species of birds and beasts, but what Du Chaillu wanted to find more than anything were gorillas. When he finds them, you’d probably think the world would get excited, right? Well not right away. After languishing in New York City, he finally finds the celebrity he craves when he moves to London, England.

I get a little weary when I read on a book jacket that a nonfiction book “reads like a novel.” Rarely have I encountered such books, but surprisingly, this book does on occasion really read like a piece of fiction. This isn’t to say I don’t believe what is said is true; rather the way it’s structured is very unlike contemporary history books.

As an as-of-next-month graduate of a journalism program who has written feature stories before, I appreciate how difficult it is to reconstruct a scene. By that I mean rather than saying “This happened” you instead try to talk about the thing as if it’s happening right here and now. Reconstructing is a very difficult skill to master; it requires heavy research and a lot of time to get everything just right.

Monte Reel manages to do this quite spectacularly throughout, particularly during Du Chaillu’s African expeditions. If anyone is wondering how to make history interesting to people, the answer is simple; tell it like the story it is.

What the book also highlights, and it’s something you might already know if you’ve read a book like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, that scientists of the time were really petty. They were very prone to jealousy, as is shown by at least three different men who do their best to try and discredit Du Chaillu because he started to draw spotlight away from their own respective work.

It is really like a soap opera at times, but the melodrama doesn’t feel cheesy or unnecessary because, damnit, it actually happened.

Between Man and Beast is a very fair and balanced history of a now-forgotten explorer that is at the very least sure to get you kind of excited about gorillas.


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