Pioneering explorer Aloha Wanderwell lived large in an age of adventure
Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World's Youngest Explorer
By Christian Fink-Jensen and Randolph Eustace-Walden. Goose Lane, 421 pp, softcover
Following the great round-the-world auto race of 1908 and great round-the-world aeroplane race of 1924, the North American public went crazy for publicity-hungry showoff adventurers who returned home to give lectures and show films about where they had been.
The best-known American example was Lowell Thomas, the person who had made Lawrence of Arabia famous. The best-known Canadian instance was Gordon Sinclair of the Toronto Star (and later of CBC’s Front Page Challenge); he spent the 1930s visiting Devil’s Island, dining with headhunters in New Guinea, and all that sort of thing. But there was another Canadian of this type: a British Columbian and a woman.
Idris Welsh (1906‒96), who grew up on Vancouver Island, assumed the forename Aloha because it had a romantic ring. As for the phony-sounding surname Wanderwell, she acquired it through marriage to a man actually named that: Walter Wanderwell. He was an accused rumrunner, suspected German spy, political crank, and mountebank showman, who in 1922 advertised for women to join him in a discontinuous round-the-round “endurance race” in souped-up Fords.
The Wanderwell team, a kind of travelling circus about travel itself, would go to somewhere in the Amazon or Africa, for instance, making silent films and snapping photos. They traipsed through nearly 50 countries. At important stops along the way and in major world cities they filled theatres to capacity before moving on. Aloha was the organizer, publicist, photographer, and, when necessary, mechanic. She became a pilot as well and, in the Depression years, quite famous—but also somewhat notorious.
The coauthors, respectively a freelance writer and a filmmaker, present this book as a lively bit of obscure social history, competently and journalistically told, and as a biography of a pioneer breaker of gender roles. But well before the end it becomes something quite different: a murder mystery. Over the course of their joint career the Wanderwells graduated from Model Ts to a hundred-foot Nova Scotia–built schooner called the Carma.
During one of its voyages, Walter had to defuse an attempted mutiny. Later, in 1932, he was shot to death in the vessel’s cabin. A long, heavily sensationalized trial in Los Angeles put Aloha in the headlines all over again. The man tried for the crime was found innocent; the one Aloha herself suspected wasn’t charged. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.