Known for translating her observations of people and animals into powerful literary prose, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas now studies her own history in the memoir A Million Years With You.
Thomas’ story testifies to the value of curiosity. When she was just 18, she dropped out of college to join an anthropological expedition, headed by her father, to the Kalahari Desert, where they would meet with isolated tribes of Bushmen. Others have speculated that Thomas’ father, Laurence Marshall, wanted to get reacquainted with his family after his work during World War II resulted in many long separations, but Thomas says there was much more to the experience. “I’m sure we didn’t go [to Africa] merely so that Dad could know us better,” she writes. “We went because he liked wild places.” Her father, perhaps the most influential person in her life, encouraged his daughter to explore wilderness both near and far.
Thomas continued to explore and observe, even after marriage and the birth of her two children. She sought research opportunities and continued to travel to Africa, including trips to Uganda and Nigeria during periods of terrifying political unrest in the 1960s, experiences that would deeply shake her. She also wrote about subjects closer to home; her book The Hidden Life of Dogs was a bestseller.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has been described by a close friend as “strong as a snow leopard, tough as Genghis Khan.” In A Million Years With You she also recounts her weaker moments with humor and honesty, including her struggles with alcohol addiction, serious family crises and the realities of aging. Now in her 80s, Thomas retains her lively curiosity about the world. “As has been said,” she writes, “while wandering down the road of life, it helps to look for something more meaningful than oneself, and I’ve never had to look far to find it, from the stars when I look up to the soil when I look down.”