Saturday, December 28, 2019

Nonfiction Review: Through a Window

After reading Threatened by Eliot Schrefer, a YA novel about an African boy living among chimps, I was inspired by both the story and the bibliography to read Jane Goodall's Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. I had never read anything by Goodall before, and her stories and observations of the chimps were engrossing and fascinating.

The Gombe of the title is a national park located along the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the African country of Tanzania. This long, narrow park is home to several different communities of chimpanzees, and Goodall's home is on the shore of the lake nearby. In the book, she looks back on both her own experiences in the region over a 30-year period (this was written in 1990, with a new foreword written in 2010) and, primarily, tells stories of the chimp community that she has watched so carefully over the years. She begins the book with a vivid description of her return to Gombe after a long absence and how this particular place--and any time spent in nature--can affect a person, as well as explaining the title of the book:
"As I stood quietly in the pale sunshine, so much a part of the rain-washed forests and the creatures that lived there, I saw for a brief moment through another window and with other vision. It is an experience that comes, unbidden, to some of us who spend time alone in nature. The air was filled with a feathered symphony, the evensong of birds. I heard new frequencies in their music and, too, in the singing of insect voices, notes so high and sweet that I was amazed. I was intensely aware of the shape, the colour, of individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. Scents were clear, easily identifiable--fermenting, over-ripe fruit; water-logged earth; cold, wet bark; the damp odour of chimpanzee hair and, yes, my own, too. And the aromatic scent of young, crushed leaves was almost overpowering. I sensed the presence of a bushback, then saw him, quietly browsing upwind, his spiralled horns dark with rain. And I was utterly filled with that peace "which passeth all understanding."

Most of the book, though, is focused on the chimp community. Goodall and her many assistants named the chimps to better keep track of them and organized the family groups by first initial - the G family, the F family, and so on. While they did this to assist with their research, it is also very helpful for the reader in keeping track of each family. This is essential because, as I learned while reading this book, family is very important to the chimpanzees. Children usually maintain a relationship with their mothers, even as adults, and siblings usually remain close companions through their entire lives. Even fathers play a role in bringing up their children and mentoring them as adolescents, and female chimps unable to have children of their own may adopt orphans. In fact, reading about the chimps' rich social lives is very much like reading about the lives of humans: births and deaths, friendships and fallings out, kindness and cruelty, and struggles for power and control. The book also contains two sections of photos, which I examined closely multiple times, to help put names to faces and marvel at the chimps' expressive looks. Finally, Goodall includes an updated foreword, some description of how research is conducted and how it has evolved along with our understanding of chimps, and her own observations of how chimps are used in research and the sanctuaries that exist to protect our closest relatives.

Goodall's descriptions and prose read more like a novel than a scientific treatise, a sort of chimp soap opera! As a reader, I got to know the chimps as individuals, rooting for them when they faced challenges, sharing in their joys, and feeling Goodall's own grief when one died or suffered. It is clear how much Goodall and the other researchers care for these chimps they've followed and gotten to know for so many years. I was fascinated by this book, from beginning to end. It definitely opened my eyes to the intricate and emotional lives of chimps, who share so much of our own DNA. Examining their lives so closely also provides some insights into human behavior. Through a Window is a remarkable book and an excellent introduction to Goodall's famous work, inspiring me to want to read more and learn more.

312 pages, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

I also really want to see the National Geographic documentary from 2017, Jane, now available on Amazon, starting at $2.99:

Listen to a sampleof the audio book, narrated by Pearl Hewitt, here and/or download it from Audible. the sample is from the first part of the book, where Goodall describes how chimp research is conducted.

You can purchase Through a Window from an independent bookstore (like I did!), either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Through a Window from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. Sounds quite fascinating, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. I think I've said before how much I admire and like Goddall. I can't remember if I've read this one or not, but I think I'd find it interesting.

    1. This was my Goodall and now I want to learn more about her work!