October 9, 2011

A lifetime of adventure: New biography of Chanute explorers Osa and Martin Johnson

"Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure" by Kelly Enright (Lyons Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

"Osa and Martin: For the Love of Adventure" by Kelly Enright (Lyons Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

In today's global information age, it might be hard to imagine a time when large swaths of the world remained unexplored by Westerners, when photography was complicated and cumbersome, when most people didn't even know what elephants really looked like.

But this was the reality when a husband-and-wife team of explorers from Chanute began their life of adventure together.

"Osa and Martin" tells the story of these famous Kansans, in an informative and accessible way, starting with Martin Johnson's first adventure, solo, as part of the crew on Jack London's voyage to the South Seas.

Back in Kansas giving a presentation about his travels, he met 16-year-old Osa Leighty — almost an Elizabeth-and-Darcy moment, about which she noted "I let him see I thought him conceited, and that I didn't think he had anything to be conceited about." But the attraction was there, and soon the couple were married and on the way to the South Seas.

As they moved from the South Pacific to Africa, they added motion pictures — and later, airplanes — to their efforts, making numerous films showing landscapes and wildlife never before seen by Americans.

Though their films were sensationalistically promoted (the poster for "Congorilla," one of many illustrations included in the book, shows a toothy, menacing ape), they documented numerous species of wildlife and presented a truthful vision of faraway places.

Enright said, in an interview via e-mail, that the Johnsons' documentations have great value even today: "I know some anthropologists have used their films to listen to indigenous languages and watch dances, hunts, etc. to write about changes to people throughout history. ... Wildlife biologists can look at the Johnson footage of herds on the Serengeti and make contemporary comparisons. In Borneo, a group used Johnson photographs to examine changes to the environment in areas the Johnsons traveled through."

Enright ably documents the Johnsons' travels as well as the immense amount of planning and preparation — and promotion — needed to make them happen. She balances the detail and the action well, creating a full picture while not getting bogged down.

And she delves into the Johnsons' personal lives and relationship, revealing their feelings about what they were seeing and doing, teasing out small details about day-to-day life — such as Osa bathing daily in a canvas tub — and shining a light on a partnership that stands out as loving, stable and uncommonly equitable.

"When I first researched their lives, I was interested mostly in their work," Enright said.

"But when I read Osa's more personal letters, I found her not only a heroine, but a very real woman who experienced homesickness and loneliness on safari, but had the resolve to work through those emotions and brave her life of adventure."

Some of what happened on the Johnsons' adventures will not sit well with modern readers: shooting elephants and rhinos, for example.

But Enright puts this into the context of the time period, and shows the Johnsons' transformation into conservationists, how they "began to perceive that their mission was not merely to film wildlife before it disappeared, but to use their experiences and films to keep wildlife from disappearing."

Later on, however, things took a bad turn for the Johnsons. Martin died in a plane crash, and Osa alone was adrift.

Enright doesn't gloss over the difficulties Osa faced at that point, but also doesn't let them overshadow the trailblazing life Osa led with Martin.

And the lives they led — lives of adventure, when adventure was more than cheap thrills, when it was exploring the truly unknown. The Johnsons made the unknown known, and did it with thoughtfulness and style; this biography does the same with the story of their lives.

If you go: Kelly Enright book-signing

What: Reading and book-signing by Kelly Enright, author of "Osa and Martin"

Where: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas When: 7 p.m. Thursday

How much: Free

For more information, call 316-682-1181.

Safari Museum

What: The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, which houses photos, movies, writing and personal items from the lives of Martin and Osa Johnson, plus a broader collection related to the Johnsons' areas of study

Where: 111 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chanute; about a two-hour drive east of Wichita

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays

How much: Adults $4; seniors and students 13-college $3; children 6-12 $2; children under age 6 free with an adult

For more information, visit

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