The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans
This fascinating memoir can be read two ways. It gives us a marvelously detailed picture of an overland journey from Washington D.C. to the Antarctic. But it is also a part of a series called “Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies”, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Naturally, for A Traveler’s Library, I am inclined to focus on the journey. However, the author’s personal story is undeniably riveting. Both succeed because of his complete honesty and his ability to observe details of life while he is living it. (If you’ve never tried it, you may not realize how difficult it is to pull that off.)
The title and cover photo emphasize the Antarctic and the black penguin, a rare bird that doesn’t fit in with the tuxedo-clad King and tiny Adélie penguins crowding the icy land. That unique all-black bird makes an appropriate metaphor for Andrew Evans, who grew up as a devout Mormon, but was expelled from his beloved church because he is gay. First they tried to reform him, and he tried to conform, but he could not change any more than the melanistic penguin could choose to look like his brothers. Although Andrew Evans has found a partner he loves and a satisfying life, there is still a hole where the routines and rules and rituals of the church used to be.
However, if you are looking at this as the memoir of a travel writer, the cover and title are somewhat misleading. The book is not about the Antarctic. The continent stirred the curiosity of the young, geography-obssessed boy and became a lifelong dream. Now it is the goal of the journey but does not take center stage until the very end of the book.
As travel literature, the fascination of The Black Penguin lies in the difficulties Evans has undertaken by choosing to travel only by bus all the way12,000 miles through the Southern USA, Central America and South America. He has already achieved the travel writer’s Holy Grail–an assignment from Keith Bellows at National Geographic Magazine. When Bellows asked if it was even possible to travel all the way by bus, Evans fudged the truth and answered with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’
But the rides on buses varying from sleek, modern air-conditioned marvels to Central American “chicken buses” provide a different view of the countryside along the way, and allow Evans to introduce us to an array of interesting characters. The long bus ride also provides the writer ample opportunity to ponder his life and gracefully weave thoughts about Andrew Evans, former Mormon and gay man into the story of Andrew Evans, travel writer on an adventure.
There is plenty of danger along the way, from anticipated highway robbers and drug cartels to washed out roads along dangerous cliffs, car ferries turned back by wild seas. Evans presents these dangers with skillful suspense. At the end, the suspense builds on the time honored question of time. Will he get to the port in time to board the National Geographic exploration ship that will take him to his destination?
The writing is skillful. The story is compelling and well worth your time.