We study them, we make friends of them, we imagine them as larger-than-life villains, we alternately revere or abhor our genetic connection to them, but one way or another, we can't seem to get apes out of our lives.
Most of all, we write about them. The recent publication of two books--one fiction, one nonfiction--about orangutans (see James W. Hall and Birute Galdikas) piqued our interest and sent us scurrying to "read more about it." The early returns from that effort are summarized below. Whether you read recent fiction or nonfiction, one thing seems clear: Apes of all kinds get along just fine until humans become involved. Galdikas says it best when she describes looking at an orangutan and catching "a glimpse of what we were before we were fully human ... a reflection of Eden."
If I were an ape, I'd want to learn English only to be able to tell the civilized world to piss off. Most of the apes you'll encounter in these five books seem to share my point of view, though by and large, they express it a lot more gently.
Dickinson, Peter. Eva. Delacorte, 1989, $14.95 (0-385-29702-5).
Eva wakes up in the hospital to realize that doctors have saved her life by transferring her neuron memory to the brain of a female chimpanzee; to be whole, she must integrate her human consciousness with her chimp nature and instincts. This poignant young-adult novel transcends its melodramatic science-fiction premise to explore complex genetic and ethical issues in a nondidactic way.
Gaidikas, Birute M. F. Reflections of Eden: My Twenty Years with the Orangutans of Borneo. Little, Brown, 1995, $24.95 (0-316-30181-7).
Of the three women profiled in Montgomery's book below, all of whom devoted their lives to the study of primates in the wild, Galdikas may be the best writer. This account of her exhaustive efforts to track and observe the orangutans of Borneo is especially notable for the way it captures the personalities of individual animals. …