________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005


Extraordinary Women Explorers. (The Women’s Hall of Fame Series).

Frances Rooney.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2005.
118 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 1-896764-98-3.

Subject Heading:
Women explorers-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** /4


Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra and Yongden passed illegally from China into Tibet at the Dokar Pass high in the Kha Karpo mountains. No Westerner had been in this region before, and few have since. She climbed mountain after mountain, going through passes of up to 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). She and Yongden were almost buried in snow many times. Once they walked for nineteen hours without a break, and more than once they nearly starved. Occasionally they stayed overnight with a family in their tent and shared the food cooked in their fire. On they walked, through deep snow and biting cold and wind. Over and over they were advised not to do this and told that no woman could. “Not for one minute did I consider giving up the game. I had sworn that a woman could pass, and I would!”



What sets a female explorer apart from her male counterpart, proposes Extraordinary Women Explorers, is that her quest is not to conquer, but to assuage her curiosity. Author Frances Rooney reconstructs the adventures of 12 women who contributed significantly to our knowledge of landscapes, peoples, and cultures around the globe. Born at different times and into different circumstances over the last 200 years, all of the women risked hardship -- hunger and thirst, exhaustion, unfamiliar climates, financial insecurity, as well as overt and covert discrimination because of their gender -- to collect and communicate information firsthand. The women’s openness to learn from and adapt to the environments surrounding them becomes a recurring theme in this sixth book in Second Story Press’s “Women’s Hall of Fame Series.”

     Extraordinary Women Explorers retains the familiar format of previous texts in the series. Its table of contents precedes a brief introduction which contextualizes the dozen women presented in the book within the larger community of women explorers. Rooney acknowledges the limitation of her text when she writes that “These are some of the women we know of. There are hundreds more…” (p.10). The 10 chapters that follow the introduction run from eight to eleven pages each, once again providing succinct yet informative biographies. In keeping with the theme of exploration, a miniature Mercator projection map (1.5cm x 3cm) appears above each chapter while, at the bottom of every page, the page number is set within the circle of the four cardinal points of a compass. A black and white photograph or picture is centred underneath the name of the subject(s) for each chapter, and there are between two and five photos per chapter. These illustrations satisfy readers’ curiosity about what these intrepid women looked like, yet because none take up more than one-sixth of a page, the biographical narratives remain central to the volume.

     Additionally, sidebars on every other page or two highlight interesting facts, such as “There are more statues of Sacagawea in the U.S. than of any other woman” (p. 17) and that runaway slaves sought directions to freedom encoded “in the design and pictures on quilts” (p. 22). For those with an insatiable appetite for adventure, a “Resources” section lists 20 more women to research via the local library or Internet. Also, this section identifies a further five to eight books and Web sites specific to each chapter. Photo credits conclude the book. At 118 pages, an index is unnecessary. Nevertheless, it would facilitate readers’ knowledge of geography to have maps of the areas the women traversed, particularly since, as the book indicates, some countries have been known by more than one name. Hopefully, interested readers will seek out atlases.

     To select only a handful of women from among many prime candidates must be no easy venture for the authors of this series. Rooney’s assemblage, however, shows incredible attention to diversity in a compact space. The women in the book are a mosaic composite of backgrounds and experiences. They are Aboriginal, Black, Inuit, European, American, and Canadians. They include guides and climbing instructors, a missionary, a photographer, an opera singer, and a nurse and censor of the mail. Amongst them, these indomitable women have explored four out of seven continents: North America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Rooney’s choices also represent women who are single, married, widowed, divorced, estranged from their husbands, single parents, and adoptive parents. In short, Extraordinary Women Explorers covers not only a large geographical territory, but an expansive relational one, too.

     Despite their differences, all these women demonstrated a common penchant for independence and adventure at an early age; they were also all highly resourceful. For instance, Edith S. Watson achieved financial independence by exchanging photographs “for food, lodging, and transportation” and traded photos with Kodak for film, paper, and cameras (p. 32). On Wrangel Island in Siberia, Ada Blackjack took care of a dying man and kept herself alive after his demise, even though she had never learned traditional Inuit survival skills (p. 71). She showed immense fortitude in sharing her shelter with this dead man until she was rescued many months later. Phyllis James Munday not only climbed mountains, but she also manufactured food stuffs, shelter, and equipment specifically for mountain climbing (p. 58). Furthermore, a number of the women have written books and spoken to groups about their adventures to raise awareness of other cultures and to raise finances needed for their journeys. As recently as 1997, Matty McNair and Denise Martin astutely retained leadership of the North Pole expedition even though organizers contemplated replacing them with a man (p. 107-108); nor are they the only ones to have fought discrimination. Mental and physical resiliency may very well be responsible for these women’s longevity: so far, two of the twelve have lived to 100, one to 96, and some others well into their 70s and 80s.

     Expertly navigating between taking a wide, sweeping scope and a narrow, pointed one, Rooney ensures that Extraordinary Women Explorers has more Canadian content, directly and indirectly, than, say, Amazing Women Athletes had. For example, Sharon Wood and Denise Martin are Canadians. The American Matty McNair is married to a Canadian, and their business headquarters is in Nunavut. Edith S. Watson and Victoria Hayward, although born in Connecticut and Bermuda, respectively, traveled across Canada, recording its peoples, landscapes, and ways of life through photography and journalism. Sacagawea was married to a French Canadian fur trader. Amanda Berry Smith was born to parents who gained freedom from slavery and later assisted many Black slaves in escaping to Canada. Phyllis James Munday, born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), came to Canada with her family at an early age, immigrating to Manitoba first, and then to British Columbia where she spent the rest of her life investigating mountains. Freya Stark’s English father moved to B.C. from France, and Freya obtained financial independence via investments in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway (p. 62). Ada Blackjack accompanied an expedition funded by a shady Manitoban opportunist posing as a Scandinavian explorer. Only Alexandra David-Néel and Dervla Murphy have no visible connections to Canada.

     In general, the writing style, tone, and diction are suitable for ages eight to eleven: the text’s primarily short and simple sentences are easy to read, and the most difficult vocabulary consists of unfamiliar place names. However, this reviewer still insists that juvenile non-fiction should model proper grammar and syntax, as well as structure. Like an increasing number of its contemporaries, Extraordinary Women Explorers contains a few too many sentence fragments for my taste (p. 8, 34, 35, 56, 71, 89). Also, greater attention to organization would eliminate one- and two-sentence paragraphs in the chapter on Alexandra David-Néel (p. 40) and circumvent awkward contradictions and non-chronological sequencing in the chapter devoted to Ada Blackjack. The latter, for instance, begins a paragraph with “Ada granted no interviews to any reporters,” only to contradict itself in the subsequent sentence with “The only interview she ever gave was in 1973...” (p. 78-79). Finally, a sidebar should draw attention to key points in the primary text, not introduce fresh material as does the puzzling sidebar that suddenly interjects the news that Amanda Berry Smith had five biological children (p. 26); nowhere else does the chapter mention them. Still, while its presentation needs a touch more finesse here and there, the content is excellent, as is the price at $10.95 CAN/$7.95 US.

     Second Story Press’s Web site has yet to reveal what the next project in the series may be, but there is plenty of scope for the imagination. Perhaps it won’t be long until Memorable Women Movie Stars, Outrageous Women Outlaws, or Accomplished Women Aviators join the ranks of sister texts Amazing Women Athletes, Famous Female Physicians, and Spectacular Women in Space. After all, there’s still vast territory across all disciplines in which to rediscover the contributions of remarkable women.


Julie Chychota of Winnipeg , MB, has quite resigned herself to armchair exploration.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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