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Julian Smith – Crossing the Heart of Africa

January 28, 2011

11. Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith (2010)

Length: 328 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction: Biography/Travelogue/Memoir

Started: 16 January 2011
Finished: 22 January 2011

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I had received my copy of Kingdom Under Glass not long before this was offered up for review, so I guess I had colonial Africa on the brain.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 December 2010.

Two men walk across
Africa to find love and
prove themselves worthy.

Summary: In 1898, Ewart Grogan fell in love with a woman named Gertrude. Gertrude’s step-father was convinced Grogan wasn’t good enough for her, so in order to prove himself, Grogan embarked on a nearly impossible journey: to be the first white man to transverse the entire continent of Africa from south to north. Along the way he had to deal with troublesome employees, debilitating tropical fevers, rampaging wildlife, and savage native tribes.

A century later, Julian Smith also fell in love. He’s getting married to Laura in a few months’ time, and is starting to get cold feet. Inspired by Grogan’s example, he heads to Africa to retrace Grogan’s route. There he finds not only the changes wrought in the continent by the passage of time, but also a sense of himself, and what he wants out of life – and love.

Review: This book was a mix of three threads of story: one-third Grogan’s biography, one-third Smith’s modern travelogue, and one-third memoir of Smith’s relationship with Laura. On this basis, 2/3s of the book was great. Grogan’s story had been mostly lost to history – I certainly had never heard his name mentioned with his fellow African explorers – and it’s a fascinating tale, full of adventure and danger and excitement. It filled in a gap in my knowledge of African history that I didn’t even know was missing, and provided a very vivid sense of the many trials that early explorers had to endure. I also enjoyed Smith’s sections of his modern-day journey through Africa. He’s a natural travel writer, capturing the details and idiosyncrasies of his trip and smoothly integrating them into a larger political and historical framework.

Where this book lost me were the segments telling the history of his relationship. I understand that they need to be there as a means of motivating his trip, and in trying to better parallel Smith’s journey with Grogan’s. But after a few sections of him dissecting his rocky relationship history and his fear of commitment and his cold feet, I started to lose patience with the whole enterprise. I mean, I am neither his therapist nor his marriage counselor, and the story of their relationship, while obviously of great importance to him, didn’t strike me as anything particularly noteworthy, and was actually kind of uncomfortably personal to read.

Another few picky points: There is a bibliography, but it’s not broken up by chapter or topic, and there are no end notes at the back, which would have provided an excellent opportunity for some more detail. Similarly, there is a map at the beginning, but it only shows Grogan’s route, without any of the modern country borders or place names, which made following Smith’s parts of the story more difficult.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit – much more so than my last book about African exploration – largely due to Smith’s easygoing prose and fascinating topic. I just wish he’d left some of the self-analysis at home. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you liked The Lost City of Z, you’ll probably like this one too, as it’s the same story – Victorian explorer; modern journalist following in his footsteps – just on a different continent.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Leeswammes’ Blog, Linus’s Blanket
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The Nile slides thick and silent beyond a grid of barbed wire.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 52: “A peloton of Heroes-for-hire is waiting at the Malawi border.” – the main field of riders in a road race.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2011 7:17 am

    I think I agree completely with your review. I’m glad, I thought it was just me. Indeed, I didn’t need all the relationship background. I wonder if that was his own idea, actually. Maybe it was suggested to him and added afterwards.

    • January 31, 2011 9:44 am

      Leeswammes – I can definitely see how that conversation went, whether Smith was having it with an editor or with himself – like the book wouldn’t be complete without the “parallel” love stories and his love story wouldn’t be complete without all of the background.

      I would have thought it was just fine if his motivation for going to Africa was “hey, that Grogan guy did it, and I’m going to go see if I can do it too!”, though.

      • January 31, 2011 9:52 am

        Absolutely, I agree. We didn’t need the parallel love story at all.

  2. January 28, 2011 7:41 am

    Oooh this sounds fabulous. I’m generally not big on travelogues but Africa and the exploration of rain forests fascinate me.

    • January 31, 2011 9:46 am

      christina – I think you’ll like this one, then. I generally like travelogues, but even if you don’t, I think it’s well-enough blended with and contrasted to the historical biography sections to make it work.

  3. January 29, 2011 9:55 am

    I’m glad this book was mostly good! I got it for review a bit ago, but it keeps getting put off for other books. I did like The Lost City of Z, so I’m excited about this one.

    • January 31, 2011 9:47 am

      Kim – When you get around to it, I’ll be interested to hear what you think! It wasn’t a particularly speedy read – non-fiction rarely is, for me – but it was an easy-going read, if that makes sense.


  1. Review: ‘Crossing the Heart of Africa’ by Julian Smith

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