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On Harper's Trail

By Elizabeth Findley Shores
University of Georgia Press, 2008
$42.95, Hardcover

Reviewed by Julia Oliver

This engrossing biography of Roland McMillan Harper, “Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Coastal Plain,” is clearly a labor of love as well as an extraordinary feat of erudition. As a young child, the author heard stories from her mother, uncle, and grandfather about the handsome, shy man who had rented a room during the Depression—“when a judge’s salary was not enough”—in her grandparents’ house in Tuscaloosa. Dr. Harper, who at the time had an office in Smith Hall at the University of Alabama, created artful toy houses of pasteboard for the Findley children and named a hybrid camellia for the family.

Like many others plagued with the onus of genius, Harper was rife with eccentricities. In the scientific circles he moved in, he became legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and regional terrain, much of which was gleaned during long, solitary treks over the countryside and coastal plains of Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle. His career included thirty-five years with the Alabama Geological Survey. Although he enjoyed the company of many friends, loved children, and was devilishly attractive to women, Harper lived alone for most of his life. He married at the age of sixty-five.

Roland Harper, who was born in 1878 and died in 1966, published many papers and was a pioneer in the field of documentary photography. Much of the research for this impressive book came from the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama. Elizabeth Findley Shores, a native of Tuscaloosa, grew up in Birmingham. Currently a resident of Arkansas, she holds degrees in history from Boston University and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. She certainly writes beautifully and intelligently. In this book, she has re-created an unforgettable character in Dr. Roland McMillan Harper. July 2009

Julia Oliver is a Montgomery writer.

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