St. Louis-based author Ridley Pearson takes a stand against poaching in Africa with ‘White Bone’
The book features familiar characters, John Knox and Grace Chu of Pearson’s “Risk Agent” series, but this time their professional relationship becomes a bit more personal.
“It sounds so snobby to say ‘the characters write your book,’ but in so many ways the characters write your book,” Pearson said. “Especially Grace Chu, I’ve become incredibly fond of and have felt her appreciation of Knox go a bit beyond the professional, although she has never voiced it. In ‘White Bone,’ I was looking for a vehicle to bring them close together by pushing them apart.”
The premise of the book is this: Chu contacts Knox warning that her cover may have been exposed in Kenya while on assignment. Knox must retrace her steps while navigating the world of illegal poaching and the underground AIDS vaccine trade.
In writing the novel, Pearson felt it important to go to Kenya to get a grasp of what’s going on in the world of illegal wildlife poaching. He spent three weeks in the country and interviewed 25 people about the issue. One of the interviews that most influenced his book was with Ole, a guide at the Solio Lodge, north of Nairobi.
“I told Ole that I am an Eagle Scout and I’ve done an awful lot of backpacking and hiking and backcountry survivalist work and how would I hold up in the African bush? He said very politely, ‘I’m sorry sir, but you wouldn’t make it a night,’ and I said ‘no really, I’ve done a lot of this work,’ and he said ‘no, you wouldn’t make it a night.’ I said ‘well, I need to make it in my novel four to five days as a white person who knows nothing about your culture: educate me.’”
They spent the next few days going over survival skills in the wilderness.
“Everything you read in the book is something Ole taught me,” Pearson said.
Pearson said his other interviews shocked him because people were rarely honest with him about the wildlife poaching trade.
“I should be less gullible than I am because I have interviewed police and government people for the past 30 years now,” Pearson said. “I met with our State Department a few times, many conservationists … and it just turns out that everyone has a degree of skin in the game that they’re unwilling to be honest about it.”
Pearson said he was drawn to write the book featuring this issue when he heard his grandchildren wouldn’t see an elephant in the wild in Africa. There were 1.3 million in 1979, after all.
“I thought: that’s can’t be. Sure enough, there are fewer than 400,000 left. We’re losing 30,000 a year. Do the math. We have eight, nine years.”
Pearson will donate 20 percent of the royalties from this book to U.S. photographer Nick Brandt’s Big Life Foundation, which employs Maasai rangers to protect 2 million acres of wilderness in East Africa.
Listen to the rest of Pearson’s interview with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh here:
Pearson will give a talk about the book on Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1630 S. Lindbergh, St. Louis, Mo., 63131. More information here.
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