Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Growing Soles: A Ninety-Six Year Journey Around the World by Micae Martinet

Circling the globe on foot in 1920 and 2016
I first encountered the name Hippolyte Martinet while doing genealogical research. He is a distant cousin of mine; we share some Belgian ancestors. Whereas my Belgians settled in Wisconsin, Hippolyte’s grandfather settled in New Orleans, where he fell in love with a mulatto slave, purchased her freedom, and married her. Both of Hippolyte’s parents were free Blacks with one-quarter African ancestry, making him one-quarter Black as well. While the circumstances of Hippolyte’s birth are quite interesting, the circumstances surrounding his death are even more so.

In 1920, at the age of 41, Hippolyte Martinet decided to walk around the world, barefoot, relying on the kindness of strangers. Having previously moved to Washington State, he set out from Seattle, marched to New York, and then took a ship to England. After hiking across 16 nations in Europe and Asia, he died of malaria in Yunnan, China. Growing Soles, a book on Hippolyte’s life and travels, was published in 2020. The author, Micae Martinet, is Hippolyte’s great-grandniece. Not only has she researched the story of her great-granduncle’s epic walk, but she and her husband Doug also set out to complete Hippolyte’s journey from his burial site in China to Hong Kong, which would have been Hippolyte’s departure point back to Seattle. The chapters frequently hop back and forth between Hippolyte in the 1920s and Micae in 2015 and 2016. Growing Soles thus combines a historical biography that brings to life this unique figure from a century past with a personal memoir of the author’s own travel adventures in China.

Hippolyte is a fascinating character, but there isn’t a whole lot of information available on him—just a few articles, a few letters, a few documents, and a few photos. Micae Martinet has certainly done her due diligence in the research department and reprints what she has found in the book. She has also done a great deal of historical research into the events that were happening at the time Hippolyte passed through the places where he walked. This adds valuable context to his travels, particularly in regards to issues of race, class, and labor unrest during the 1920s.

The majority of the book, however, is about the travels of Micae and Doug as they finish the last 1,200 miles of her great-granduncle’s walk. One learns a bit about Chinese culture from Micae’s experiences, but for the most part this is a memoir composed of personal anecdotes about hiking and roughing it on the road. Recurring topics include Asian bathrooms, food and hotel accommodations, Micae’s medical problems, and run-ins with the Chinese police. At times she digresses into other trips she has taken abroad. As a curious traveler myself, I admire Micae and Doug’s adventurous journey and sometimes envied their off-the-beaten-path view of a foreign country. Often, however, the monotony of following one highway for over a thousand miles did not seem like the most enjoyable or educational way to experience an exotic land.

I read this book because I wanted to learn more about Hippolyte, so I was attracted more to the history than to the memoir. I did find much vicarious interest in Micae’s contemporary travel narrative, but I would have preferred more content on Hippolyte’s era. Still, this is likely the most comprehensive source of information on Hippolyte and his walk, and for that I greatly appreciate Micae Martinet’s efforts in researching and writing this valuable account. It is a fascinating story that deserves to be read.
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