*Check out http://www.infinitereads.com for other reviews and sundry thoughts!*
Biography readers who love discovering stories of fascinating, historically important figures should rush to find a copy of Soundings, Hali Felt's astute reconstruction of the life of Marie Tharp.
In 1948, when Marie Tharp went to work as a draftsperson at Columbia University's Lamont Geological Observatory, scientists viewed advocates of continental drift with the sort of skepticism usually reserved for UFO sightings. No one believed, or even wanted to believe, that Earth's continents were moving. At that time, the Lamont Observatory owned the largest collection of oceanic data in the world, including the records of soundings, a procedure that measures oceanic depth. Tharp, brilliant and independent in a society that valued neither quality in its women, came to work at Lamont having already fought a hard battle for an education in the sciences and a career. Barred from fieldwork due to her gender and relegated to drafting maps under men her junior in both age and education, Tharp nonetheless made a startling contribution to the world of earth sciences. While interpreting soundings into oceanic cartography, Tharp discovered the Mid-Oceanic Ridges, an underwater mountain range that proved the theory of continental drift to an astonished scientific community.
Felt writes much as early oceanic cartographers worked, attempting to sound the depths of Tharp's life and create a detailed picture from cold data. While historical accounts show Tharp as a self-contained and outwardly unemotional woman, the topography of her life contained mountains and valleys created by the impact of her mother's early death, her fight for acceptance in a man's world and her unorthodox relationship with Bruce Nezeen, her partner and lover, whose power struggle with Lamont's administration would turn Tharp's career into a bargaining chip. Tharp's private nature leaves Felt with a skeleton of facts she fleshes out both by using her finely tuned intuition and by encouraging the reader's sympathy and imagination.
Felt's skill revives Marie Tharp, finding the shape of an intelligent, passionate woman's personality, the political machinations of the Cold War scientific community and an underwater world where "steaming hot springs resemble ladles of consommé." Felt re-creates scenes as though they were movie montages, depicting Tharp's race to produce a map of the Indian Ocean for the scientific community. While she takes a necessary amount of poetic license, Felt's mission is not to embroider or alter Tharp's essence, but to discover it, and she succeeds in this powerful portrait of a woman so driven that society could not stop her from changing the world.
***This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness Readers Edition. Sign up for this free and awesome newsletter at http://www.shelf-awareness.com for the latest news and reviews! This review refers to an ARC provided by Shelf Awareness.***