Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs......

Fair warning: I'm about to be a book snob. I'm the first one to enjoy a clever title but I just hate it when a publisher chooses to issue a title that is just plain poor English usage. You will NOT catch me reading The Wind Done Gone! So, when customers kept placing holds on Alexandra Fuller's story of her African childhood, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, I just put it on my list of book titles that annoy me and called it a day.

The trouble is, I now realize that I was only hurting myself. I've been fascinated with books about white Europeans who leave the comforts of home to live in a continent so overwhelmingly different from what they've known ever since reading Karen Blixen. Then there was The Flame Trees of Thika, (thanks Cynthia!), and in India, the exquisite Raj Quartet or The Far Pavilions. These books only tended to fan my flame of romanticism and naivete, a weakness that I'm trying to overcome through learning and living without becoming too cynical.

The bottom line is that I saw the paperback of Fuller's book on the Friends' shelf so I picked it up and started browsing. Sure enough, I couldn't put it down. It reads like a cross between Out of Africa and The Glass Castle. It is lovingly written, showing a depth of appreciation for the beauty of Africa and an amazing well of forgiveness for the difficulties that Alexandra "Bo Bo's" parents put their family through.

Moving from country to country within the continent, Zambia, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mogadishu, the Fullers "follow the money" (kind of). They are farmers, growing tobacco. They raise and herd cows. They lease derelict farms and work to turn them around using the slave labor of the indigenous population - paid but not really. They rarely make a dime. To their credit, they all work. From a very young age BoBo and her sister Vanessa are out there in the fields and at the market. Their Mum is a horsewoman who can train and break a horse with the best of them, riding through her difficult pregnancies, right up til she's hospitalized for rest.

What becomes clear through Ms. Fuller's storytelling is the extreme hardship of life in the bush, the loneliness that comes from the cultural divide. BoBo and Van are, at this time, not allowed to befriend the black population and not willing to befriend the white missionaries. Until they are sent off to private schools their lives are proscribed to such a degree that it seemed like abuse to me.
 Mum, once a happy drunk, succumbs to full-blown alcoholism as she buries unformed babies, fights off cobras with an Uzi, and is finally diagnosed with manic-depression. She is fearless but hateful to any black who crosses her path yet saves the life of Violet, a native woman whose husband has attacked her.

Like so many Europeans who believe that they know better than the ones they think they have conquered, there is an underlying sense of superiority among the adults that, by some wonderful quirk of fate, does not carrry down to the children. Ms. Fuller's love for Africa is exacerbated after she goes to England and returns. Her descriptions of the smells, tastes, and especially, the sounds of the continent resonate with the reader as they only can when one has loved a place beyond description. Probably the way I feel about Italy. 

I believe that, in everyone, there is a spot where we truly feel we belong - where we were born to be. For Alexandra Fuller, though she currently lives in America, that place is Africa. Read more about her writing and upcoming sequel to Dogs at:

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