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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

A River Trip With Margaret Mead

When was the last time you paddled up a river in a remote area on an island in the Pacific while hungry, cold, bleeding from insect bites, and suffering an injury? Never done that? Me neither. For trips like that, I like being what Karen Blixen in the movie Out of Africa called a mental traveler. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate adventure, but I prefer death lurking on the page.

For years I mentally traveled the globe between the yellow covers of the National Geographic magazine. The Geographic’s stunning photographs and articles on topics ranging from recent expeditions to Antarctica to galaxies in space are enough to take away one’s breath away. Who hasn’t been mesmerized paging through an issue? When I was in grade school, there were always old National Geographics lying about at school. We used to cut them apart and use the photos for reports. Even then I liked perusing the articles, not understanding half of what I was reading. The magazine’s full living color captivated me. Things inconceivable were suddenly visible. For a kid who liked paging through the World Book Encyclopedia at home (that’s how we surfed in those days), National Geographic was a big deal. When I grew up, it was probably the first magazine I subscribed to.

However, as the adult recipient of this treasure trove of culture and science, I had just one problem: I couldn’t part with the magazines after reading them. What if I wanted to look again at that article on fourteen epic libraries around the world or have that piece on the mating habits of baboons on hand for future reference? And did you know? Old issues of National Geographic might be worth money one day. But as time wore on, my issues (of the magazine, that is) were multiplying like rabbits. The magazine is thick. A mass of bright yellow spines grew like a fungus my shelves. At some point, to soften the yellow glow emanating from across the room, I invested in faux leather slip cases with the year stamped on the binding. It took a small fortune for the back-dated slip cases and a full day to organize them.

The Fiction

Thus knowing my appreciation for National Geographic, you can imagine my excitement when I picked up a copy of Euphoria, a novel by Lily King (2014), featuring the story of Nell Stone and her husband, Fen, and their encounter with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. King’s vivid descriptions and engaging, sensory-rich narrative quickly swept me away to another place in time. Set in the 1930s in the unchartered territory of New Guinea, the story takes place when anthropology was still forming as science. We become privy to what Nell, Fen, and Bankson studied (albeit from a Western lens), how they studied (in particular, Nell), and how cultures intersect and clash as they try to make sense of one another.

The Facts

What initially drew me to Euphoria was the inspiration behind it, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, and fellow anthropologist by the name of Gregory Bateson. To be clear. King’s novel is fiction. But the parallels to Mead, Fortune, and Bateson were evident from the start.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune c. 1933 (Library of Congress photo)

So who was Margaret Mead? She was and currently still is decades after her death one of the world’s most celebrated cultural anthropologist of all time. During her lengthy and distinguished career she conducted twenty-six field trips to study six different peoples in the South Pacific. She would author numerous books and articles summarizing her observations and insights regarding human interactions.

Mead was born on December 16, 1901. As a child, she loved to explore the outdoors. Natural history and botany fascinated her. Her learned mother and grandmother encouraged her to observe her world and to keep notes, including on her younger siblings, whom she literally watched grow up. "I learned to observe the world around me, and to note what I saw," she is quoted as saying about her childhood. At Barnard College, she studied under Franz Boas, the founder of modern anthropology. Her coursework and relationship with a mind like Boas's must have been heady things for a woman in an era when women weren’t supposed to be anywhere but in the kitchen. She excelled in her studies, was one of his star pupils, and made anthropology her life’s passion.

Following her field studies in the South Pacific, Margaret published her findings, first in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Coming of Age and subsequent publications challenged common beliefs surrounding gender. She rejected notions that certain male and female traits are innate and claimed gender was more influenced by cultural experiences and tradition. She was on to something. Nearly one hundred years after reporting her findings, the conversation surrounding gender has become far more nuanced. A similar lasting contribution to anthropology was her claim that culture shapes personality, that it is not heredity, sending the nature versus nurture debate into full twentieth-century swing. Her emerging views regarding sexuality and child rearing also put her on the forefront of innovative thought.

While reading Euphoria, I kept reiterating to myself that it was the story of Nell and Fen and Bankson, not Margaret Mead. But I couldn’t resist thinking that Andrew Bankson’s description of Nell at work in Euphoria is reminiscent of how Margaret Mead might have conducted her fields studies:

“She was still at her work…she was good at it. Better than I was. Systematic, organized, ambitious. She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them [her subjects] but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. It was simply the way she worked.”

And the seeds of actual events in Margaret Mead’s, Reo Fortune’s, and Gregory Bankson’s intertwined lives are in plain sight in Euphoria. The three had spent time together conducting research in remote areas along the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933. As the story in the novel unfolds, a love triangle between Nell, Fen, and Bankson begins to take shape, just as one did in real life between Mead, Fortune, and Bateson. It didn’t seem hard to put two and two together.

But in Euphoria, two and two equals three. The plot takes a different turn than events in Margaret Mead’s real life, keeping the reader on high alert. I don’t do spoilers, and I haven’t told you anything that’s in Euphoria that you won’t find on the back cover or the inside flap of the book jacket. But three things really stand out to me about this book.

Intriguing Content. Like all good historical fiction, Euphoria leads you to wonder about the facts behind the story. I am indebted to Lily King for prompting me on a wild Google-chase to find out more about the places and the people featured in the novel. This is where online content rocks. What of the native river people we meet, the tribes that call it home, then, and now? Additionally, the story takes place in 1933. Euphoria’s trio had no fancy gear, no cell phones. They didn’t have freeze-dried packs of food. To describe their journey as roughing it would be a cruel and insulting understatement. Danger from multiple angles simmers below the surface and moves furtively in the shadows of the harsh, rugged terrain in which the story is set. Injury could mean death. Broken glasses might spell the end the expedition. What drew Margaret Mead there? What was the trip up the river really like for her? And of course, what actually transpired between Mead and Fortune and Bateson? I clicked away for hours online seeking answers to these and other questions. For the record, during my mental journey, no insect bites or crocodiles barred entry, and I was home safe each night by dark.

Evocative Writing. King is a masterful writer; I’d follow her anywhere. She’s clever. She has a sharp wit and a way with words that assures you she isn’t your typical storyteller. Just when you think you know where the story is going, the plot takes unexpected turns. It twists up one side and crashes down the other. While trying to guess what will happen next, you’re suddenly lost. Afterward, it occurred to me how apt the title of the book was. There is an intense excitement after reading it. The story lingers. You keep turning the fictional characters over in your mind.

One Inch. The last thing that stands out to me is that Euphoria takes up one inch of space on my bookshelf. When my husband and I downsized houses several years ago, my day of reckoning with my issues of National Geographic had finally arrived. I couldn’t take the magazines with me; there simply wouldn’t be room for them in our new home, and I surely couldn’t throw them away. So I donated them to a local elementary school. As I drove away, I hoped my old copies of National Geographic would instill in at least one child the same curiosity National Geographic had sparked in me so many years before.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

In her later years, Margaret Mead proved that one person can make a profound difference. In addition to adding richly to the entire emerging discipline of anthropology, she championed world hunger, childhood education, and mental health. She was small in stature but left a huge footprint. Writing from in the 1920s until her death in 1978, Mead’s ideas were revolutionary. During her lifetime she was an international superstar. She became a common household name when she started writing a regular column in Redbook Magazine. But as is often the case with revolutionaries, someone was bound to take aim at her body of work. And because anthropology was new and is still evolving as a discipline, in time, she and her work became the subject of controversy, most notably among conservatives, but also by some progressives, a sign that she was rocking the cultural foundation of the modern age from both ends of the spectrum. After she died and was no longer able to defend herself, several of her most staunch critics bludgeoned her work. Despite whether you agree or disagree with her practices and theories, however, she has earned her place in history and will forever remain an icon—a role model for women and a professional figure to respect and admire.

I’d love for you to read Euphoria. And if you like adventure stories, I have several other favorite titles you may want to consider adding to your To Be Read List:

River of Doubt, by Candice Millard. River of Doubt (nonfiction) chronicles Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing trip on an unchartered tributary of the Amazon River in 1912. We knew he was an adventurer, but this is one trip that challenged all of his strength. By the way, you won’t be disappointed by the stellar research that went into this book. Millard is a former writer and editor for National Geographic. You know where I'm going with this ... Such credentials speak for themselves.

Out of Africa, by Isak Dineson (pen name for Karen Dineson Blixen). Karen Blixen really did have a farm in Africa. Out of Africa is her memoir of her years in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. Don’t just watch the movie (which happens to be my favorite movie all time). The book is an equally engaging read about an extraordinary woman during a tumultuous time in a storied place in history. And there was also a love triangle. Two love triangles, in fact. Biographies of Dineson are equally fascinating.

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain. McLain’s novel was inspired by Beryl Markham, a daredevil of a woman living in Africa in the early part of the twentieth century who was a horse trainer and a pioneering female aviator, most notably the first person to fly solo, non-stop, across the Atlantic Ocean to North American. She was also an actual love interest of Denys Finch Hatton, the love of Karen Blixen’s life (see above).

Of course, there are many more adventure stories like these. If you know of one, I’d love to read it, especially if it is about a fearless woman from the past. Post the title in the comments section below where any and all reactions to this post are welcome.

Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.

N.J. Mastro


Photos are in the public domain.


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