Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

I’ve always loved to read.  I completed every story in my elementary school reader (you must remember those) in a week.  We weren’t supposed to read ahead, but I couldn’t wait! For me, words are manna from heaven—both the written and the spoken.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had us keep a card file with a small book review of every book we read that year.  I kept up my card file until I went to college. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Fortunately, one of my sons-in-law gave me a book journal for Christmas in 1999.  I filled it up in a year, and then started a new card file based on the journal format.  Now I have a record of twelve years’ worth of books!

Eloise May Library

Two years ago, our local branch of the Arapahoe Library District moved from a small space on the third floor of a local government building to a new building two miles from our house.  Once it was so close, Dave and I made a pledge to stop buying books and start borrowing them.  Neither of us has ever had trouble finding a book to read in this library branch. We keep lists of favorite authors and new book titles, but we also have found authors unknown to us on the May’s library shelves. I have also requested books for us, even though we sometimes wait a month or two for a best seller. Every visit to the library is an adventure for us, searching the shelves for the right book that will provide us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Dave urged me to publish my book reviews for many years, but I didn’t know where I could do it until I started blogging and using Facebook.  I’ve done two reviews on this blog and a few on Facebook, but I decided to make book reviews a regular blog feature. So, let me begin with two of my favorite recent reads…

Alexandra Fuller (Bo Fuller) at cabin near Pinedale, Wyoming. Offhand decor includes an even mix of African and cowboy artifacts. CREDIT: David J Swift

This summer I stumbled upon the author Alexandra Fuller in the book review section of The Denver PostShe had written a book about growing up in Africa.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller (nicknamed Bobo) lived in Africa from 1972 until 1994. Her parents lived in Kenya and then Rhodesia before she was born, beginning their family with her sister, Vanessa, and a brother who died from meningitis in his infancy. Unlike her older siblings, Bobo was born in England, where her mother retreated to recover her health and give birth to Bobo.

Before Bobo arrived in Africa, the Fullers acquired their own ranch Rhodesian ranch where they could grow most of their food and run some sheep and horses.  Unfortunately for them, after a few years of ranching, a civil war interrupted their lives.  Bobo’s father joined the white colonial army, fighting unsuccessfully against the black Rhodesians.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the Fullers lost their home and began a peripatetic lifestyle fraught with deprivation: poverty, homelessness, hunger, danger and illness.  They moved from Zimbabwe to Malawi and finally to Zambia, running from conflicts and hellish conditions. The family lost two more children, numerous pets, livestock and land.  Bobo’s mother fought depression constantly, but her condition worsened with alcoholism. She displayed manic episodes as well and became unpredictable.

Bobo wrote this 2001 memoir based on her childhood memories. She uses a light and humorous touch as she describes learning to load and shoot a gun and riding in the family truck over roads that could be mined. I was captivated, as well as appalled, at the conditions this family endured, but their love for Africa was clear.  Bobo’s irrepressible spirit and her family’s indomitable pluckiness shine through their troubles.  I couldn’t put down this fascinating book.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sequel to this book was published this year, a few months after I read the first memoir.  After Nicola, Alexandra Fuller’s mother, read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she condemned it as “that awful book.”  She didn’t like her one-dimensional portrayal. She made the point when she told her daughter, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know anything about me.”  The book was written from a child’s memories of her parents.

For Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller listened repeatedly to hours and hours of family interview tapes and tackled her second book as portrait of her mother.  In a New York Times review she is quoted, “This book is my love story to (my mother).  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was a love story to place.”

There is no question that this portrayal of both the Fuller parents comes across differently, especially for Nicola.  She is a vulnerable woman who overcomes her depression with resolve and comes to terms with her losses through self-acceptance and forgiveness.  As a reader, I grew to admire Nicola and Tim Fuller for their courage, self-sacrifice and ability to build themselves the life they always wanted.  There is no doubt that the star of Cocktail Hour is always Nicola–and Africa.

Nicola Fuller pulled herself together and taught her daughters to make the best of their situations.  She cultivated their artistic and literary gifts and inspired them to endure.  Vanessa still lives in Africa and is the mother of several children. She is also a graphic and textile artist. Alexandra went to college in Nova Scotia and met her American husband there.  They live in Wyoming with their two children. Cocktail Hour is her fourth book.

Both of these memoirs are beautifully written, but Cocktail Hour has a compact, spare quality that is powerful as well as eloquent.  It is also laced with humor, a quality the Fullers must possess in triplicate to have survived their African troubles.

I close with some favorite passages from each book.

Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child … is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”               

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness:  “No one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence—that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission:  even a good war—if there is such a thing—will kill anyone old enough to die.”                                                     

RELATED ARTICLES

▪    Running From Grief (seattleweekly.com)

▪    Books of The Times: A Mother’s Long Love Affair With Colonialism (nytimes.com)

▪    Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review (telegraph.co.uk)

Another favorite book about an African childhood, this time in Kenya.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

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5 thoughts on “Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

  1. Growing up in the United States, even the lower middle class United States where I started out, I’ve always found it hard to understand why someone would endure hardship for the sake of place, especially when there is family involved. Unfortunately, it’s reading that has taken the biggest beating in trying to post every day (and keep up with reading blogs), so I’m unlikely to read Fuller’s work, at least this year. But her voice (in your excerpts) sounds beautiful.

  2. Speaking of survival stories, I’m just finishing “Unbroken,” by Laura Hildebrand, author of “Seabisquit.” It’s a true story of a world class runner show was lost at sea during WWII, surviving 43 days at sea on a raft and 2 1/2 years in Japanese POW camps. It’s a grueling read but absolutely riveting. I had to stop reading after dinner because the POW camp stuff was so horrible. Still, it’s incredible journalism … reads like a novel with a lot of history included.

    • I read Laura HIldebrand’s “Unbroken” also and found it riveting. As you mentioned, it was difficult to read at times, but I became totally immersed in the book and just had to finish. Besides being a great survival story, I was impressed with the reconciliation aspect of the story. That is such an important aspect of the healing process. Inspiring!

  3. i am a bad surfer and cannot find reference to your post about publishing your memoir.
    One of the great things about Kindle publishing is that it is free.
    I might suggest having your oh so energetic kids that want a memoir that they cull through and organize your many blogs, cut and past the book, and then you can be the publisher,
    Publishing is cheap, you do not have to market a history that your family would enjoy for generations

    • Thanks for your comment! I hadn’t thought about that possibility! I haven’t published it yet, because I keep putting off that last tweak that is necessary. One of my daughters and my sister have Kindles, so I will have to talk to them about it. Thanks!

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