Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road
by Kate Harris
Release Date: January 30, 2018
Publisher: Dey Street Books
Number of Pages: 320
Source: Warren Public Library
Read 4/1/19 to 4/6/19
As a teenager, Kate Harris realized that the career she craved—to be an explorer, equal parts swashbuckler and metaphysician—had gone extinct. From what she could tell of the world from small-town Ontario, the likes of Marco Polo and Magellan had mapped the whole earth; there was nothing left to be discovered. Looking beyond this planet, she decided to become a scientist and go to Mars.
In between studying at Oxford and MIT, Harris set off by bicycle down the fabled Silk Road with her childhood friend Mel. Pedaling mile upon mile in some of the remotest places on earth, she realized that an explorer, in any day and age, is the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. Forget charting maps, naming peaks: what she yearned for was the feeling of soaring completely out of bounds. The farther she traveled, the closer she came to a world as wild as she felt within.
Lands of Lost Borders is the chronicle of Harris’s odyssey and an exploration of the importance of breaking the boundaries we set ourselves; an examination of the stories borders tell, and the restrictions they place on nature and humanity; and a meditation on the existential need to explore—the essential longing to discover what in the universe we are doing here.
At my last book club meeting, when we were trying to decide on our next read, I was fully behind this story. The blurb sounded interesting and I was hoping for a story that would speak to me, the way Cheryl Strayed’s Wild inspired me to want to do more. I’m not at all pleased to admit that I had to force myself to finish this book. I did not enjoy but a few bits and pieces. I’m typing out my part of the review the day after finishing the book, hours before our book club will be meeting. As usual, I will have the rest of the club’s thoughts and feelings below. I’m really curious to find out if anyone felt differently since this story has a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
Kate Harris’ tale started strong; I was very optimistic after just the first chapter. Things quickly went downhill from there for me, though. The writer came across as entitled to me, although there is nothing in particular that she wrote about her formative years that would make me think that. It wasn’t until the last chapter or two of this book before it became somewhat clear that she did actually care about the people she came across in her travels. In most cases, I felt that they were all just a means to an end. Even her travelling companion, Mel, didn’t seem all that important to her. Ms. Harris came across as a “me, me, me” type of person. Where I admire that she had a goal in mind and wanted to reach that goal, she never acknowledged that the people that helped her along the way with food and/or lodging were taking a HUGE financial hit when they did so. The people on her path live with very little, but are amazingly generous and welcoming. I’m sure it would have upset them if she had refused their hospitality. Yet it seems she never reciprocated their kindness, either financially or with helping in other little ways. Perhaps she did but didn’t write about that, but if that’s the case I feel she left the humanity aspect out of her story.
I don’t feel I got to know the author in any deep way with this book…which is odd for an memoir. I’m sure the reason I find her to be entitled, condescending, and selfish is that she doesn’t let the reader see her real self. What was she thinking while on this journey? She tells about other people, historical figures, that have taken the same journey and written about their travels. She gives bits and pieces of history of some of the areas she passes through, like an old history professor who cannot keep his train of thought going in one direction. It comes across and dry and lacking feeling.
There are very few personal anecdotes about things that happen to her along the way or the people and places she visits. The handful of times the author tells her personal stories (such as in the first chapter) are wonderful, there just aren’t enough of these gems in a book that’s over 300 pages long. I’m not asking her to make stuff up. But if there wasn’t more that happened on this trip, why bother writing about the journey? The thing is, I feel there were a lot of stories to be told. They were alluded to here and there, but never fleshed out to a satisfactory tale. Instead, Ms. Harris would go off on a tangent about Marco Polo or some other explorer.
Sometimes, after discussing a book at book club, I can start seeing facets of a story I didn’t see on my own. Maybe that will happen with this one. We shall see.
We were only short Tina at this month’s book club. She was out of town (actually out of the country in Canada!) for a seminar for work. The rest of us dined on some yummy Mediterranean food. You can’t beat the tawook, shawarma, grape leaves, hummus, etc. in southeast Michigan.
Although nobody was as disappointed with the book as I was, nobody was blown away by it either. It was the general feeling of the group that the author is not a very sentimental person and had a bit of trouble coming across as a sympathetic narrator. All in all, the feelings were a lot the same as mine, just not as strongly felt. For whatever reason, this author triggered me to an almost sense of anger.
Lynne, who was our hostess and had picked the book, had come across the author’s YouTube channel where she had posted updates on her travels as they happened. (The author and her companion on the trip were sponsored and also had an ongoing Go Fund Me type of account to fund their travels so did regular videos and stories along their way.) She had done a sort of compilation video that goes along with the bigger happenings in the book and we watched that after lunch. It wasn’t too long, but it actually did the trick of humanizing Ms. Harris and making her a more interesting person in my eyes. I will admit, I felt myself softening.
I believe it was Linda who noted she wanted more of a travelogue and less of a history of the area. That was the impression we all went into this one with so it was a disappointment when we didn’t get that.
Our next book club is hosted by Liz on Sunday, May 19, 2019. We are reading This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. I’d love for you to read along!