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LAce Posted Monday, March 15th, 2004
Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Book review by Todd Pontius

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is a memoir of Alexandra Fuller's childhood in Africa during the seventies and eighties. Growing up in Rhodesia as the daughter of a white farmer during civil war, or living in Malawi (the poorest country in the world at the time) would be fodder enough for a very gripping memoir. But it is the story of the Fuller family, and their struggle to survive in Africa that makes Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight a great book.

The southern Africa that Fuller describes for us is a dangerous place. In addition to the scorpions in the swimming pool and the spitting cobra in the pantry, there are mines on the roads and insurgents from across the border lurking in the bush. In 1966, the year the Fullers moved to Rhodesia, the period of civil war known as the Second Chimurenga began. Colonial rule was ending in the region, and the resulting fall-out made life difficult for both black and white citizens.

That's how I remember Karoi. And the dust-stinging wind blowing through the mealies on a hot, dry September night. And a fold-up and rip-away lawn prickled with paper thorns. And the beginning of the army guys: men in camouflage, breaking like a ribbon out of the back of an army lorry and uncurling onto the road, heads shaved, faces fresh and blank. Men cradling guns. And the beginning of men not in camouflage anymore, looking blank-faced, limbs lost.

Soon, the violence of everyday life becomes routine for the Fuller family. A military convoy must accompany the familyís mine-proofed Land Rover whenever they leave the farm. With this violence comes political change, as Rhodesia becomes Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, and then (with the rise of Robert Mugabe) the independent nation of Zimbabwe.

Soon Fuller soon comes to understand that her life and position in Africa is rapidly changing. As a small child, young Alexandra recognizes that as a white she has a certain degree of power over the household's cooks and servants, and she is made constantly aware of what she cannot do or say in front of non-whites. When independence comes to Zimbabwe, Fullerís all-white secondary school is desegregated almost overnight. For the first time young Alexandra is surrounded by black faces in her classes, on the playground, and realizes her moment in the history of the continent. She recognizes her parents as relics of a different time; holdouts from a colonial era that is now over. She also comes to realize that the personal and the political are forever intertwined in the history of the country.

Rhodesia has more history stuffed into it's make-believe, colonial-dream borders than one country the size of a large teapot should be able to amass in less than a hundred years. Without cracking. But all the history of this land returns to the ground on which we stand, because all of us (black, white, coloured, Indian, old-timers, newcomers) are fighting for the same thing: tillable, rain-turned over fresh, fertile, worm-smelling soil. Land on which to grow tobacco, cattle, cotton, soybeans, sheep, women, children.

Despite the crisis that befell Africa in the seventies, the real tragedy in Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight is the personal one that the Fuller family experiences. More than failed crops, the unceasing threat of violence, or life under a brutal regime, forces within the Fuller family threaten to tear the family apart despite their best efforts. Alexandraís mother loses three children: one to disease, one to stillbirth, and one to a terrible accident. These deaths change the family more than anything else in the book, as the mother retreats into a terrible downward spiral of depression, alcohol abuse, and nervous collapse. Fuller writes about her mother with a great deal of honesty which may be unsettling for some readers, but it is this portrayal of an unconditional love that makes the book a success. As Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight shows, Alexandra Fullerís life is most affected by this strong and occasionally difficult love, both for her mother and for the life that she led growing up in Africa.

Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Alexandra Fuller
Random House Hardcover 2001

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  • Donít Letís Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Terrence Templeton on Monday, March 22nd, 2004 at 1:57 PM
    Excellent review, Todd. I'm going to find this book.

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