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Women and the truth | Ysbere en singende orgidee

April 13, 2020 in Uncategorized

Mary Treat was a scientific genius.

Who? Yes, exactly. So were Jeanne Baret, Ynés Mexica and Marianne North. Who?

Mary Treat was held in high esteem by Charles Darwin, yet she is not on the A-list of international celebrities.

I have recently read two books about explorers of the truth whose gender made it impossible to excel in a world where people operate beyond truth, where questionable morals superseded scientific fact.


Vir Afrikaanse leser. Daar is ‘n brokkie laer af oor ‘n fantastiese kinderboek.


The two books cannot be more different. One is a heavy, fascinating novel, the other a delightful, thin children’s book in full colour about a polar bear who sets off to the Amazon in a rowing boat. Yet, at the core of these two books lies the fact that an ice bear in the tropics may have a better chance of succeeding on a mission than women who seek the truth in a world that cares only for convention.


Animal explorers: Lola the Plant Hunter

Sharon Retta sends a polar bear, Lola, into the rain forest to look for a rare plant.

The second last page of the book holds a sobering reality check: Lola merely represents real-life female scientists who had had to overcome severe prejudice due to their gender.

The title of this wonderful book is Animal explorers: Lola the Plant Hunter. I read the Afrikaans, beautifully translated by Jaco Jacobs, called Diereverkenners: Lola en die singende orgidee.



The other book is Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

I am a major fan of Kingsolver’s and this book did not disappoint. After reading it, I phoned my mom and said: Get it! She got her copy a few hours before lockdown.

One could write a thesis on this book, but I’ll try not to bore you.

The book explores the lives of families from Vineland in New Jersey.

First, in the present, we meet Willa Knox. She is a typical middle-class woman for whom the American Dream seems to be fading. Knox’s husband is a college professor and they are struggling to make ends meet, for tenure is something most academics do not get in the USA. She discovers that a little-known scientist, Mary Treat, who used to live in the same town – possibly even extremely close to her own home.

We then jump back to the 1800s. The reader then meets Treat’s neighbours. Thatcher Greenwood is a teacher at the local high school. He desperately tries to teach science, but his stubborn headmaster wants none of it. Science, the headmaster says, is for people who do not believe in God. Thatcher also tries to educate girls, and that seems preposterous.

Thatcher lives with his young wife, Rose, who desperately wants to be a society girl, like her mother once was. Rose’s sister, Polly, is the one who understands Thatcher’s quest and she really turns into a delightful character. I adored Polly.

Mary Treat’s life and scientific pursuits provide elastic bands that hold these two worlds together.

Treat’s scientific mind and her friendship with an ever-more desperate Thatcher, is juxtaposed with shallow pursuits of his wife and those who want to be seen to be in the correct circles. Truth means nothing to the men in high places; in this world even a deliberate murder can happen with little consequence to the perpetrator.

In the present Willa Knox has to deal with en egotistical megalomaniac with an orange skin who runs for president. In the past we meet a feeble president who cannot keep the rampant capitalists at bay.

The book explores how politicians get away with disregarding the truth in order to make more money. In opposition to them are the “unsheltered” scientists who go out on a limb to find the truth.

So we find one part of the title unfolding.

The other part of the title is more ominous. In the present Willa Knox lives in crumbling house. In the past Thatcher Greenwood and his family did as well.

The book is a delightful interplay of past and present, with figures seemingly leaping across the decades. Polly, the delightful young women in Thatcher’s household, finds a present-day match in Tig, a four-foot tall woman who refuses to bow to society’s demands.

Tig is short for Antigone, and that of course unlocks an entire intertextual world to the Greek feminist texts; as does the fact that Willa’s husband is Greek and knows the myths. Mary Treat had little recourse to resources, but she succeeded despite her gender. In the ancient times and in the present we find her experiences sandwiched by the two Antigones.

Mary Treat was a woman in a time when her gender meant that her scientific work would not be recognised by most – even though she was held in high regard by the likes of Charles Darwin.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but is a really good book. I loved it.

So we return to the delight polar bear who rows to Amazon in search of an singing orchid. Fantasy? The orchid is not, but spare a thought to real-life female explorers whose passions and careers were trashed simply because of their gender.


Diereverkenners: Lola en die singende orgidee.

Hierdie wonderlike kinderboek is ’n inspirasie vir grootmense ook.

Lola hou van blomme. Sy wil, soos haar oupa, die wêreld gaan verken. Haar oupa moedig haar aan en só beland Lola in die Amazone.

Hierdie fantastiese boek is te koop by alle goeie boekwinkels. Ondersteun hulle asseblief wanneer ons nie meer ingeperk is nie. Jy sal vind dat Bargain Books en Graffiti dit sal hê, of dadelik sal bestel. Die ander groot winkels sal dikwels ook moeite doen as jy ’n boek soek.