In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman tells the stories of two Westerners who spent their lives in Borneo during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still largely wild and unexplored. Their personal journies are very different, but they both become embroiled in the changing nature of this beautiful land where orangutans roamed the jungles and tribes of native Borneans lived their lives as the had done for hundreds of years, unexposed to the outside world.
I have a thing about books that weave a historical drama into a web of events that were occurring in the same timeframe. In her book ‘The Stowaway’ Laurie Gwen Shapiro weaves a story about a young man seeking high adventure at a time when exploration was still big news, and adventurers were national heroes.
The story is set in 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was becoming a distant memory and the Great Depression was only just starting to loom. Teenager Billy Gawronski was a first-generation immigrant from a Polish family who had little interest in joining his father’s furniture upholstery business. He, like many young people, of the time dreamt of adventure and becoming a hero. In 1928 aviator and explorer Richard Byrd was organizing the first American expedition to Antarctica, leaving from New York City. On August 24th, 1928, the then 17-year-old Billy jumped into the Hudson River, climbed aboard the expedition’s flagship, which was soon to depart for Antarctica and hid. Unfortunately for him he was caught and sent home.
So Gawronski tried again, and again: the third time he stowed away on one of Byrd’s ships, all part of the same fleet heading to the South Pole in 1928, he was again found. But this time, Byrd offered him a job as a mess boy, and Gawronski’s dream became true.
This is a truly aspirational story of a young person fulfilling their dreams. Laurie Shapiro fills the book with information about the characters and events that shaped this period in history. She almost tries too hard to fill the tome with historical facts but I will let her off as I love to gorge on such chronicles. The book is very easy to digest so it a great one to pick up and read on your travels.