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No Hurry to Get HomeReview - No Hurry to Get Home
The Memoir of the New Yorker Writer Whose Unconventional Life and Adventures Spanned the 20th Century
by Emily Hahn
Seal Press, 2000
Review by Kathryn Walker
Jun 30th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 26)

Read this book with caution! If you have even a slight penchant for wanderlust and travel, be careful. If you have any commitments to your current life, be warned. This book will make you want to leave stability and security behind and head out into the world in search of new people, foreign places, and exotic adventure. No Hurry to Get Home is an autobiographical account of writer Emily's Hahn's life and travels in the first half of the twentieth century.

No Hurry to Get Home is a story of feminism avant la letter, the story of a women hooked on living in the world and of a world somewhat surprised to meet her. You can read the history of the suffragette movement and you can read traditional or cutting edge feminist theory, but none of these can quite capture or offer the experiential feminism of No Hurry to Get Home. Hahn recounts the story of a woman living with a passionate commitment to gender equality. Hahn tells of how in high school she and her sister stubbornly wore knickers instead of skirts despite the principal's discouragements. Hahn describes her struggles with traditional gender stereotypes when in university she decided to study mining engineering, a field that had never before been open to women. And the ultimate glory of Hahn's feminism is conveyed in stories of her fearless traveling, of third class passage, of a road trip to Arizona, of a trek across Africa, and of making a home in Chinese opium culture.

Throughout her travels Hahn came across prejudices of all kinds. As a woman she was constantly discouraged. Hahn was already determined to travel to Africa when she met a Bostonian, who Hahn here names Stewart Cass, who had been living in Africa. Stewart's African home in the village Tange became Hahn's first African destination. Hahn's story of living in a small African village is a climax of her story of gender prejudice and Stewart is this story's antagonist. When Hahn first met Stewart in Boston she was impressed by his romantic commitment to return to Africa in order to be reunite with an African woman he had met. But when Hahn arrived in Africa and witnessed the manner in which Steward treated this woman and his other wives, Hahn's initial feeling about Stewart shifted. She never allowed herself the luxury of ethnocentrisms. However Hahn could not help but become appalled by Stewart's misogyny and when finally he ordered her to not cut her hair, Hahn in an act of brave self-assertion set off from Tange and trekked across the Belgian Congo, into Uganda, to Lake Kivu and onto the east African port town Dar es Salaam.

Gender prejudices were not the only biases encountered by Hahn. In Africa in particular she met with blatant racism. For example in Dar es Salaam, Hahn met a British journalist who strongly discouraged her from going to the movies with a Greek hotel owner due to the fact that 'Greeks are not considered white'. Hahn, a heroine bent on confronting prejudice, despite the journalist's racist warning, went to the movies, and proceeded to become part of the Dar es Salaam's eclectic community.

Hahn's travel tales display not only her determination to rebuff prejudice but also her own genuine appreciation for and love of cultural difference. Hahn's stories tell of her ability to meet with and become a part of the communities that she traveled through. In the African village Tange, despite the fact that Hahn found herself quite dismayed by the gender inequities of the African traditions, she was able to put her judgments in abeyance and become accepted into the community. And in China, Hahn did not just associate with western travelers but became settled into Chinese life and became part of a Chinese community.

Writing a review of Emily Hahn's No Hurry to Get Home is both exciting and intimidating. The story of a twentieth century writer-adventuress is beautifully written --written with a subtle elegance-- and to a reviewer this is both inspiring and daunting. 'I want to write just like her', the reviewer says of the author, 'Will I be able to?', the reviewer questions.

Hahn is an excellent storyteller. Her descriptions of far way exotic places are so well crafted that the reader is really brought along on the journey. And this story crafting does not seem overly deliberate and at no point feels contrived; rather Hahn's writing bears an honesty and has a graceful touch. Hahn presents her reader with images that linger. For example her story of running away from home as a child is explained as the result of having a 'hangover from books'. Hahn's tales of the reading room at the British Museum in London are animated by the image of Miss Stuart a wacky reader, dressed always in shorts, furtively drinking milk from cartons with straws and madly spitting into books. Hahn's walking trek across Africa is colored and made vividly tangible by her accounts of being beset by wild cravings for sweets. When the reader is introduced to Kazuko in Japan, we remember her by her habit of binging mandarin oranges, while the fruit was in season. And in China Hahn's account of her opium addiction becomes intimate with the description of the dark oily opium stain that marked her index finger.

No Hurry to Get Home is structured like a classic Homeric journey. It begins with an account of Hahn's home, of early days in St. Louis, of the family's move to Chicago, and of a headstrong mother, a traveling father and a gaggle of sisters. The story then follows Hahn on a series of adventures, to Arizona, to England, to Africa, and to China. In these adventures heroine Hahn is confronted with and overcomes obstacles of prejudice and social conventionalism. Closing, the story tells of Hahn's return home. In addition to mirroring the plot structure of the Odyssey's journey, No Hurry to Get Home also weaves a rich tapestry of Odysseyian themes; it is a story meeting the world and establishing one's identity, a story of covert getaways, a story of temptations, a story of adventure and a story of memory. Finally, No Hurry to Get Home, like its Homeric precursor, is a really really great read!

© Kathryn Walker, 2001

Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.


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