To prove himself to the woman he loved and her skeptical stepfather, Ewart Grogan traversed Africa, four-thousand miles from south to north. It took him two and a half years. The year was 1897.
One hundred and eight years later, Julian Smith retraced Grogan’s path in an effort to prove something to himself—although he was still trying to figure out what that “something” might actually be. In Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, the heart Smith needs to cross is his own.
“Even though our personalities, our lives and times were vastly different, Grogan and I were really after the same thing: lifelong happiness with an incredible woman,” Smith writes. “Perhaps crossing Africa as he had would help me find peace with this radical new direction my life was about to take. Maybe some of Grogan’s mojo would rub off on me.”
Africa always seems ready-made for interior journeys. Heart of Darkness. Stanley and Livingston. You get the idea. “Africa has always been a concept as much as a place: an exotic backdrop for outsiders to have ennobling experiences, a land of theatric extremes of violence and beauty,” Smith says.
Crossing the Heart of Africa combines history, travelogue, and memoir, although Smith never seems to get any of them quite right. His own journey intertwines with Grogan’s; a third main thread about his relationship with his fiancée, Laura, braids into the mix.
The book’s travel segments usually turn into straight narrative, chronicling event after event after event without spending much time reflecting on those events. The book could’ve benefitted from more sensory description, at the very least, and perhaps a more literary style, at best. Travelogues are most effective when the writer puts the reader there—and Smith didn’t always do such a great job of that.
His memoir segments, meanwhile, often feel contrived. He undertakes his trek as his last hurrah to freedom before his pending marriage. Within the context of that knowledge, Smith still tries to build suspense in the retelling of his relationship with his fiancée: Will he ask her out? Will they get together? Will he ever be able to commit? He creates little cliffhangers to end those sections, but it’s melodramatic pabulum. There’s nothing extraordinary about their relationship to make me care, and I already know how it’s going to turn out. If he’s trying to make himself seem like a sympathetic, three-dimensional character by showing his inner conflict, all he’s really doing is making himself look like a tool.
His history sections work best. The early part of Grogan’s story get a little dry, but as he plunges into the heart of Africa, and life gets interesting for him, the narrative picks up. Smith doesn’t quote a lot of primary sources but, instead, paraphrases several biographies (including Grogran’s autobiography).
Smith’s book is at its best when it recounts the history and recent past of particular places he visits. In those segments, Smith’s history and travelogue components play off each other well. Readers get treated to background information on the work of naturalists like Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, the ongoing civil wars of the Congo, the exploitation of Africa’s big game, the environmental degradation of the snows of Kilimanjaro, the dark legacy of the Arabian slave trade on the rest of the continent, and so on.
I read Crossing the Heart of Africa because I wanted to get a sense of place. I got the history of the place, but I didn’t feel any kind of emotional connection to it, no sense of wonder about it.
It’s Smith’s movements through place, not place itself, that allow him to make his discoveries and decisions. I’m not convinced his tale couldn’t have happened elsewhere so long as he had time away from Laura in an environment that stressed him out a little. I don’t know that Africa, per se, was intrinsic to his self-discovery the way it was for Grogan.
Crossing the Heart of Africa is no jewel of the Nile. It has some worthwhile content, but overall, it’s the most pedestrian “big adventure” I’ve ever read.