Born in England and now living in Wyoming, Fuller was conceived and bred on African soil during the Rhodesian civil war (1971-1979), a world where children over five "learn[ed] how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill." With a unique and subtle sensitivity to racial issues, Fuller describes her parents' racism and the wartime relationships between blacks and whites through a child's watchful eyes.
There are instances when her colonialist heritage sneaks into the narrative, like when she mentions the condition of the hospitals and schools after Zimbabwe independence and how they were before. But, I think she deals with the European role in this part of Africa with a level hand, not playing too much into one side or the other. Just trying to present it as it was, through the eyes of a child, which are the most honest eyes.
Very good read. It isn't always as smooth a read as I would like; story jumps back in time abruptly and it isn't always clear from what time the story is being told. However, Fuller is a wonderful storyteller. She is over-awed by her older sister, under-awed by her environment (which really made for a more interesting story!) and always honest and forthright.
In this memoir of her early childhood, Alexandra, called Bobo, recalls the details of her family life as well as the events in her country. Rhodesia was fighting to be free of British rule. It succeeded (becoming Zimbabwe) but it was not the safest environment for a young white girl. Bobo learned, at a young age, to be proficient with an uzi and other weapons.
Bobo/Alexandra’s family life was also complicated. They were poor, moved a lot, drank even more and experienced the loss of three children. Only Bobo and her older sister survived. To be kind, I’ll say that her mother is a character. She swings back and forth in her moods, is a strong racist, and drinks so much some days that she neglects her children. But the family holds themselves together with an enormous bond.
Alexandra tells the story in Bobo’s voice and from Bobo’s head. It worked very well for me. I could hear the little girl as she observed and interacted with the world around her. The earliest accounts skip around a bit as does a child when telling you about events. The book has both it’s sad and humorous moments. I sobbed reading about the drowning death of Bobo’s little sister. I hooted out loud when reading about the visit of two missionarys – the horrible tea and sandwiches and their quick departure after sitting on a couch loaded with fleas.
One of the best parts of Alexandra Fuller’s writing is her ability to convey to the reader the sights, sounds and smell of Africa.
"What I can’t know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell: hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass."
This is a beautifully written trip to another place and another time. I highly recommend it.
Mum says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night."
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."
"We might shoot you."
"Okay." As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. "Okay, I won't."
Dangerous, slightly insane, quite funny. That's her childhood in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). My first impression of her family? Well, I thought it proof that parents are put here on Earth to completely embarrass their children. I know this. Yet I thought Alexandra Fuller's parents really took the prize and it was a good thing she had such a great sense of humor. Fuller doesn't pull any punches--not about the violence, corruption and poverty she often saw in Africa, nor her parents' racist views nor her mother's alcoholism. Yet Fuller said in an afterword that this story "unfurled as a love story about Africa and my family." And by the end I absolutely saw that. Despite mercilessly (and often hilariously) exposing her parents flaws, there's evident affection and respect there, and gradually I began to see why.
At the same time, this was just a joy to read. Fuller has a sharp wit, and an eye for details that bring South Central Africa to life--the sounds, the smells, the wildlife, the clashes between her little Eurocentric colonial world and that of native Africans and the ability to reacquaint you with the mindset of childhood. Part travelogue of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, part history of the waning of the colonial era, part affecting coming of age tale, I was hooked from the beginning and never was there one paragraph I wanted to skip over. I was completely charmed.
"What I can’t know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass. When, years later, I leave the continent for the first time and arrive in the damp wool sock of London-Heathrow, I am (as soon as I poke my head up from the intestinal process of travel) most struck not by the sight, but by the smell of England. How flat-empty it is; car fumes, concrete, street-wet." (130)
What intrigued me more, though, if I am to be honest, was googling her after finishing the book and watching her speak on several youtube interviews. She comes across as a very articulate, intelligent and *together* type of person, and that made me feel good; to know that in spite of her rather un-typical upbringing, she has forged a life for herself that is productive, successful and positive. I would seek out others of her books.
She's a bit of a wild child, as is probably to be expected from the combination of permissive parents, remote locations, and a backdrop of civil war and societal unrest. Her family goes into town in a convoy including soldiers and their own mine-proofed SUV. She drinks, smokes, and learns to shoot an Uzi at an early age. The casual racism of the time and situation are presented without commentary or explanation, which can be interpreted as brave. I think there is often a tendency to want to rush in after the fact and explain it away, to reassure the reader than you know much better now. But at the same time, I was left curious regarding how Fuller feels about all of that now.
There's no doubt that Fuller and her family have deep roots and a sincere love for the physical land of Africa, but I found myself contemplating what it really means to love a country when you're simultaneously oppressing and displacing its people. (Yes, I'm aware of clear parallels to the original American settlers - and that brings up the idea of history being written by the victors. The Americans won their country, while the English/Dutch etc were mostly driven out of Africa; is that the difference?) Although the family in the book isn't perpetrating many of the most egregious acts of colonialism, the fact remains that their farm is on land that only white people could own, they have black servants, and they clearly think the black Africans are inferior. Is it possible to really love a place without accepting its people?
Quote: "There is only one time of absolute silence. Halfway between the dark of night and the light of morning, all animals and crickets and birds fall into a profound silence as if pressed quiet by the deep quality of the blackest time of night. This is when we are startled awake by Dad on tobacco-sale day. This silence is how I know it is not yet dawn, nor is it the middle of the night, but it is the place of no-time, when all things sleep most deeply, when their guard is dozing, and when terrorists (who know this fact) are most likely to attack."
I loved the book. When I was about 8 my mother thought she was dying of TB and "gave" me to her best friend. This friend, Johanna, took me to Kate and Emmett's farm in central Idaho where I wandered about in the heat of summer with the pigs, and cows, and chickens, magpies, and wind rustling through the trees. I developed a soul deep love for "country" and the heat of summer, the smells of dusty barns, of chicken shit, and watching the chickens flow around in the grass after their heads had been chopped off. I particularly remember the smell of cleaning the chicken so Kate could cook it for us.
All these Idaho memories gave me the capacity to viscerally understand Alexandra's love for her African countryside, with all the dirt, and bugs, and dangerous animals. I know that feeling of running amok in the country, and wish every child should be so lucky as to have that experience.
I recommend this book heartily and I think I'll try to find a way to add some of the books she recommends to my lists of books I must find time to read.