By Hali Felt
Henry Holt. 340 pp. $30
Hali Felt’s “Soundings” is as much about her obsession with ocean cartographer Marie Tharp as it is about Tharp herself. A short 2007 magazine article about Tharp grabbed Felt’s attention, leading to four years’ worth of research and interviews concerning Tharp’s life and her work with longtime friend and colleague Bruce Heezen.
Born in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 1920, as a child Tharp was a tomboy in a mechanic’s jumpsuit who refused to attend Sunday school. As a student, she had few friends but great determination, earning a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s degree in geology. As a woman, in 1952 she discovered a rift in the Atlantic Ocean that led scientists to confirm the theory of continental drift, but initially she received no credit for her findings.
At the heart of Felt’s story, however, is Tharp’s work with Heezen and the complicated relationship the two had. According to Felt, “Stories abound in which Marie hurled paperweights or Bruce took an electric eraser to weeks of her work, in which shouting matches about what went where and what to put where there weren’t any data lasted several hours.” Heezen died suddenly at the age of 53, and Felt vividly imagines how such news would have affected Tharp. “A fan slowly oscillates at the foot of the bed, blowing air onto Marie’s face and sending strands of hair back and forth across her forehead. Every so often she blinks, but for the most part her body remains still under a shaggy blanket that looks like a piece of unrolled sod. She lies on her back and stares into Bruce’s open closet, where his clothes hang slack inside dry-cleaning bags.”
At times the book bogs down in cartographical minutiae, but for the most part Felt’s enthusiasm for Tharp reaches the page, revealing Tharp, who died in 2006, to be a strong-willed woman living according to her own rules, defying the constraints of her time.