In 1956, a game warden in Kenya named George Adamson undertook a routine mision-to shoot a lion that had killed a local tribesman. He then returned home with three orphaned cubs for his wife, Joy, to rear. When the cubs neared maturity two were sent to zoos, but the Adamsons decided to release the third.

The education of Elsa, the lioness, transforming her from an oversized tame cat to a fully capable wild animal, was a complex task. In doing it the adamsons broke new ground, recording lion behaviour as it had never been recorded before. Wild lions had been described, and tame lions had been described. It was Elisa's trasition from one ot the other that was so enormously revealing. Within a simple narrative, "Born Free," subtly introduced primary lessons in ethology together with a new view of "savage" predators that transformed the attitude of millions of readers. It may have done for the cause of wildlife what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did for the antislavery crusade.

Who is Joy Adamson? What was it that enabled her to complete this tour de force? Was it mere luck that turned a game warden's wife into a heroine and an author known world wide? In "The Searching Spirit" Joy Adamson seeks to tell us and succeeds in spite of herself.

Self-revelation is not Mrs. Adamson's forte. Her reserve and privacy remain intact throughout the book and yet at the end we realize that she is indeed an extraordinary woman. Even her origins were not ordinary. She was born in 1910, a member of a wealthy Australia family. She planned a career in the arts, testing first one talent and then another: music, sculpture, painting, acting, photography. None quite worked out, and she determined to become a doctor. She found the studies depressing and abandoned them to marry the first of three husbands. His important contribution to her life was to send her off to Kenya to prospect for their future home. On the boat she fell in love with Swiss botanist Peter Bally, and husband No. 1 faded from her life.

Bally introduced her to the delights and terrors of exploring the African wilds and interested her in botanical drawing. During the five or six years of their marriage, (Mrs. Adamson is sparing with dates), her botanical paintings brought her recognition and a career of her own.

On Christmas Eve, 1942, sunset found Joy at a frontier post in the Kenyan bush sitting with friends on the flat roof of their lodging, wearing a long, silver evening dress, and watching a group of dancing tribesmen. George Adamson appeared, astride a camel, riding at the head of a caravan, and the third stage of Joy's life began. She was fascinated by Adamson's blue eyes, blond hair, carefully trimmed goatee, and his reputation for daring and sang-froid. Their first evening was long and festive. In the morning shreds of Joy's silver evening dress were hanging on the barbed wire surrounding her tent, and Adamson had fallen in love with her. She divorced Bally soon after.

Married to Adamson, Joy shared his grueling safaris and dangerous adventures, shot her first elephant, suffered a miscarriage that ended her hope for children, and continued her painting. Realizing that the resplendent and ethnologically significant costumes of many tribes were disappearing, she undertook to record them. She devoted six years, at many times alone in remote places, to painting 700 portraits of Kenyan tribesmen.

When Elsa came into her life, Joy Adamson was ready to receive her. During 19 years in Africa she had seen a great deal of wildlife, learned much from the wildlife professionals with whom she associated, but never lost her feeling for nature in all its forms. She was able to observe the lioness with an enlightened love. It was this combination of a rare occurance and a rare viewpoint that made the book a world-wide success. It was translated into 25 languages, followed by a movie. Joy Adamson became an instant celebrity. George Adamson remained a game warden while Joy embarked on yet another career; writing sequels to "Born Free."

Joy Adamson has lived a life well worth recording, but much of her book is made up of travel stories; descriptions of scenery and adventures told with a cool simplicity that does not quite bring them to life. Nevertheless, the book will interest Elsa fans everywhere. Sadly, it seems that the years since Elsa transformed her life have been the least happy for Joy Adamson. Once, trapped and lonely on a lecture platform in a strange city, she wondered whether she "had become simply a medium for conveying Elsa's message." All who love animals received the message and for the way in which she has lived up to that trust. CAPTION: Picture, Joy Adamson in 1956, from the book