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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 21, 2002

Wanderlust Indulged Becomes Fodder for Books

What makes us want to travel? Does it have something to do with nostalgia and our desire to recapture something we experienced in the past, or with the desire to remake ourselves into something new and improved?

I believe most travelers are looking for something beyond mere excitement. They are searching for a home, someplace to put roots deep down and grow. It is often difficult for a confirmed traveler to find such a place; obviously his real home doesn't quite satisfy him.

Things You Get for Free by Michael McGirr (Atlantic Monthly, 2002).

McGirr is Australian and an ex-Jesuit priest who undertakes a tour of Europe with his remarkable mother-a trip she had long put off. Interspersed throughout the travel narrative are stories about his youth, his first years as a Jesuit and the death of his father from kidney disease caused by his addiction to the Australian version of Excedrin.

McGirr's eccentric father was a gambler and never worked a day in his life, while his mother slaved away at the local pharmacy. When his father died, McGirr joined the Jesuits and proved to be an idealistic novice who hid behind a shell of hilarity.

In many ways, he is taking the place of his father on his and his mother's European jaunt, because his parents had planned to take a similar trip for their honeymoon and had even purchased the luggage.

Many times he and his mother have to sleep in the same room in hotels, and once his mother mistakes memories of his father with memories of him. Their relationship is no doubt complex, but the trip together did a lot to make them more comfortable with each other and resulted in this extremely enjoyable, down-to-earth book.

Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gellhorn (Putnam, 2001).

If you have heard of Gellhorn, it's probably because she was Ernest Hemingway's third wife, to whom he was married during the Second World War. She is often portrayed in Hemingway biographies as ambitious and jealous of Hemingway's success, but I have found out from this book that this is an entirely untrue portrait of her.

Gellhorn possessed immense courage, daring, curiosity, and compassion. Her book is for the most part a retelling of horror journeys she undertook before 1978, when the book was first released. These ventures included a trip to China with Hemingway who is affectionately portrayed as U. C. or Unwilling Companion; flights with American pilots rivaling in tension the Atlantic crossing of Charles Lindberg; island- hopping in the Caribbean in search of German submarines; and an exploration of Africa when she was turning sixty.

Gellhorn sees each place with clear lenses; they are all uniformly ugly and squalid except for a brief respite on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, which she says is now ruined, too, by commercialism. Her strong feelings for justice are always evident and displayed when she upbraids Madame Chiang Kai- Shek for the abject poverty of the Chinese people as well as when she takes justice into her own hands upon hearing a woman screaming in a native hut in the Carribean.

Gellhorn died in 1998 at age 89, proving that a life of adventure and hard drinking can sometimes be beneficial.

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (Random House, 2002).

This young British writer has crafted an informative, heartwarming and masterfully crafted book. In his mid-20s, the author was hospitalized three times for a serious illness and developed a bad case of homesickness while in the hospital.

But upon returning to his boyhood home, he quickly became restless again. After rereading Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose he became obsessed with birds and decided to go to America to follow the migrating snow geese from Texas to the Canadian Arctic.

Along the way, he learned patience and an understanding of his passion for birds, an enthusiasm he learned from his father during his childhood in the remote English countryside. His book contains an abundance of information about the migratory behavior of birds as well as unique and uncanny portraits of interesting Americans he meets along the way. This book is a real find, and Fiennes is an author to watch.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.