TO THE HEART OF THE NILE: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa
Shipman (The Man Who Found the Missing Link , etc.) recounts the courageous, adventurous life of Lady Florence Baker (1845–1916). Born in Transylvania and orphaned after the Hungarian revolution in 1848–1849, "Barbara" was taken to an Ottoman harem where her name was changed to "Florenz," and she lived "like an innocent flower blossoming in the sun." When she reached puberty, however, she was sold at slave auction to the pasha of Viddin in the Balkans and later abducted by the second-highest bidder, a wealthy middle-aged English adventurer named Samuel Baker, who renamed her "Florence." Independent, cultured and beautiful, Sam's 15-year-old acquisition possessed a fiery spirit and worldly curiosity that rivaled his own. So, in 1861, the unlikely couple set out for Africa to search for two English explorers who were on a quest to discover the Nile's source and to continue their soulful romance, free of the scrutiny Florence attracted for her "extreme youth and somewhat shadowy past." During their four years in Africa, the Bakers dealt with life-threatening illness, deception by tribal chiefs and mutiny—and witnessed some truly horrifying acts of human cruelty and degradation. But despite the hardships, including a return trip to attempt to dismantle the African slave trade, their love was unshaken. Combining journals, letters and photographs, Shipman's account shines with historical clarity and narrative fluency, although at times the invented dialogue between the couple rings a saccharine note. Overall, this portrait of bravery, altruism and stamina in the wilds of uncharted Africa is a reverent and careful tribute. 66 b&w illus. (Feb.)
Forecast: National review attention, a 15-city NPR campaign, author appearances in New England and the Midwest and lecture tie-ins could stir up interest in this ambitious biography.
Release date: 02/01/2004