Into the Unknown: The Remarkable Life of Hans Kraus. Susan E.B. Schwartz. Lincoln (NE): iUniverse: 2005. 306 pages. Softcover. $21.95.
Hans Kraus lived the life most of us dream of. Few manage to balance, let alone excel at, both a professional and recreational career the way Kraus did. He was a visionary and bold climber on the weekends and a brilliant back doctor during the week. In both areas, Kraus relied on good sense and experience over high- tech equipment. Moreover, Kraus was a man of principles, humility, and loyalty who never let his fame within the climbing, medical, or political circles get to his head. His rich life makes for a gripping and inspirational story.
The book is well-researched and passionately written.
Schwartz relies on short and focused chapters of around four to five pages. This clear structure comes at the expense of long, flowing narratives, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Schwartz’s writing is refined and concise. In each chapter she manages to express the essence of the theme without unnecessary literary decoration.
Climbers beware, however! A reader who expects the typical mountaineering adventure book may find the climbing sections too short. There are indeed some gripping portrayals of Kraus’s most memorable adventures in the Alps and at the Shawangunks, but the book spares all details of Kraus’s trips to the Bugaboos and the Tetons. This is a strength and not a weakness of the book, however. Kraus was much more than a climber and hence a book about him cannot relegate his other accomplishments to the sidelines. If you are willing to learn a thing or two about modern European history, back pain, the intrigues of the Washington political scene and, more importantly, about a truly remarkable man, then this is definitely a book to read.
Part One examines the life of Kraus and his family in Europe. Born to a successful Austrian businessman, Kraus experienced the all-too-familiar struggle between doing what he loves and what he is expected to do. One of the strengths of this section is how well Kraus and his family’s experiences are tied in with larger history. The first half of the 20th century was of course a turbulent period in Europe. In between chapters on Kraus’s climbing adventures and his time in medical school are chapters on the ever-changing political and social landscape of Austria. Readers who are particularly history-savvy may disagree with some of Schwartz’s historical interpretations. Overall her scholarship is solid, however.
After the Nazis came to power in Austria the Kraus family immigrated to New York. The next four parts of the book cover Kraus’s climbing and medical career in the U.S. Kraus became what Schwartz calls a “founding father” of the Shawangunks. Schwartz seamlessly narrates the daring, if not reckless, undertaking that was establishing first ascents in the 1940s and 50s. Besides climbing over 60 first ascents in the Gunks, Kraus served as the area’s unofficial proprietor, ensuring access and checking the qualifications of new climbers. Even though the book is written for flatlanders as well as climbers, I appreciated that Schwartz does not waste much space explaining climbing techniques and terms in the main text. For the most part this is taken care of in footnotes.
As a doctor Kraus was equally bold and respected. His ability to cure any and all back pain through “unconventional” means peaked with his invitation to work as President John F. Kennedy’s back doctor. Kraus dedicated numerous hours to this difficult case without ever asking for compensation or political favors. It is also notable, Schwartz points out, that Kraus did not capitalize on his relationship with JFK by publishing memoirs immediately upon his death, as so many other White House regulars did. Similarly, Kraus treated all who came to his clinic and charged them according to what they could afford.
Kraus pioneered the theory that exercise, in and of itself, is healthy. Although this is taken for granted today, some of Kraus’s teachings on back pain was news to me but certainly rang true. Schwartzs efforts in sifting through medical jargon and explaining the medical concepts in a clear fashion are remarkable.
The final part explains how Schwartz came to write the book. As so many patients before her, Schwartz came to Kraus as a skeptical yet desperate back pain sufferer. The story of Schwartz’s relationship with Kraus is, in and of itself, touching. It also reaches beyond this last section of the book. Schwartz weaves images of her interviews with Kraus into the narratives of his earlier life. This duality of stories throughout the book is quite powerful.
My only genuine complaint about the book is the title. As far as I’m concerned, “Into the…” has been overused on the cover of mountaineering books. But one should never judge a book by its cover anyway. Schwarz’s achievement is nearly as remarkable as the life of Hans Kraus. His was a story that had to be told, and Susan E.B. Schwartz has done so in a most graceful way.