If you're like me you can't help reading. I've got past the cereal-box-if nothing-else-is-available stage, but I always need to have a book in progress along with a dwindling number of periodicals that I'm trying to catch up with. I wouldn't have it any other way. The problem is that from time to time, one of those books grabs a hold on my imagination and emotions and won't let go in time for me to go on to the next one.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller is one of them. It's an autobiography about growing up in some of the most unforgiving conditions on the planet in three different countries in Africa. Fuller's parents' work ethic was phenomenal, and their capacity for endurance would have made the Oregon Trail feel like a stroll to them. Because there is nothing familiar to the ordinary American reader about places, names, people, circumstances your interest is guaranteed. The author has a unique voice. Descriptions rarely include conventional modifiers, but instead depend on hyphenated phrases that do more than a paragraph of ordinary prose could to make you aware of what Fuller wants you to understand.
There is so much horror and tragedy that the opportunities for bathos and self-pity by implication are too numerous. Not one is taken up. It's clear from the beginning that the mother is an alcoholic. Before long, it's also clear why. The entire white society seems heavily dependent on drink, and the children learn early, but the sorrows and defeats facing the Fullers would drown most people. No wonder they drink. No wonder the mother succumbs to it. Everyone smokes. Every day a new misfortune seems to befall the family. Yet you come away from the narrative with the most profound admiration for what they withstood without giving in. I have a profound admiration for someone who could tell such a story while resisting any temptation (or so it seems) to reveal how many scars she must bear.
If Sophocles was right when he proclaimed that one must know himself first, Alexandra Fuller has made it difficult to tell whether she has followed that admonishment. To have written this account with so little reference to her own feelings and that reveals almost nothing of how she now views the rest of humanity is a feat.
I can't help wondering if Wyoming (where she now lives) can possibly be wild enough for her. One thing she made no secret of in the book is her enduring affection for Africa, in spite of its frustrating failings, all of them the result of the amoral greed of Europeans. This is a memoir of a stripe as different as a zebra's from a palomino's.