Man in a Cage

Written by Patrick Nevins
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Richard Lynch Garner is convinced primates communicate with one another in a language that laid the evolutionary groundwork for human speech. He travels to the French Congo in the late 19th century to observe and record the animals in their native environment, lives in a cage in the jungle for weeks at a time, makes friends with a pair of chimpanzees—Moses and Suzie—and reports on his experiences to the Smithsonian Institution and the popular press.

Man in a Cage is a fictional memoir of Garner’s early experiments recording primate sounds in the Cincinnati Zoo and his first trip to Africa. It chronicles his travels and difficulties gaining support for his work—the promised Edison phonograph that never arrives in Gabon, the sudden loss of funding—as well as the threats and dangers of the jungle from sudden fever and the mysterious attack on the cage: was it done by animals or men?

Written in a fresh, almost ingenuous manner, the first-person narrative lets readers share Garner’s enthusiasm and breathlessness as he navigates elephant trails and fingers of jungle and discovers subtle animal behaviors. Readers also can appreciate some of the underlying conflicts among tribesmen, traders, and missionaries.

The book takes the form of a Gilded Age novel that weaves in issues of the time period: emancipation and its effect not only on freed slaves but suddenly destitute small plantation owners, colonialism in Equatorial Africa, uncertainty about the theory of evolution, and outright disparagement among religious groups that classify any thought of the links between man and primates as heresy.

Author Nevins is an associate professor of English from Columbus, Indiana. Man in a Cage, his first book, is a phenomenal entry into historical fiction.