The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhoodby Elspeth Huxley Published 01 Feb 2000
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In an open cart Elspeth Huxley set off with her parents to travel to Thika in Kenya. As pioneering settlers, they built a house of grass, ate off a damask cloth spread over packing cases, and discovered—the hard way—the world of the African. With an extraordinary gift for detail and a keen sense of humor, Huxley recalls her childhood on the small farm at a time when Europeans waged their fortunes on a land that was as harsh as it was beautiful. For a young girl, it was a time of adventure and freedom, and Huxley paints an unforgettable portrait of growing up among the Masai and Kikuyu people, discovering both the beauty and the terrors of the jungle, and enduring the rugged realities of the pioneer life.
"The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood" Reviews
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood" by Elspeth Huxley, is a delightful book, about a girl who goes from England to Kenya at age six, where her parents run a coffee plantation.
The book describes an idyllic childhood, just as I think it should be for any child. I do have some bias in that I grew up in northern Tanzania for fourteen years, so the experiences Elspeth wrote about were vivid and realistic, especially in her experiences with the Kikuyu and Masaai tribal people. At times the book reveals a bit of colonial patrimony, and how British and Europeans settlers in Africa sometimes assumed it was their 'God-given' right to live a life of opulence amdist so much desparity and poverty.
This is one of my favorite books, but then again I have a lot of favorite books, and grateful that I've had decades to explore a life-long passion for reading and books. One hopes that even after death, you could at least take a few of your favorite books to pass the time away!
This book reminded me a little bit of Little House on the Prairie with some adult bits thrown in. The main character is a young girl who comes to Kenya with her parents so that they can do the pioneering thing: working with the Kikuyu and Masai, planting coffee, grafting fruit trees, swapping spouses. Meanwhile the little girl waxes poetic about killer ants that can only be avoided with ashes, her pony, buffaloes, war dances, murder, and snippets of the adult world. Her view of Africa is somewhat fractured due to her age, but that only makes it more beautiful. What a fun read.
A memoir of the author's childhood in Thika, a farm area outside Nairobi in colonial Kenya, just prior to World War I in 1913 when the author was six years old. Her quirky parents traveled from England to Thika to start a coffee plantation. In the early 20th century, the area was a mosaic of English, Scottish, and Dutch settlers trying to carve out a place among the native Kikuyu and Masai tribes. Sometimes the two worlds intersected, but rarely did they blend.
Huxley looks back on her family's adventure among the wildlife and wild people of Africa and describes it with insight and humor. She includes tales of hunts, of Kikiyu and Masai tribes, and of her love for the people and animals of Africa. Coming from pioneer stock myself, I loved her insights into living on the frontier. Unfortunately, their adventure ended after less than two years because of the onset of the East Africa Campaign of World War I, but Elspeth spent most of her youth in other parts of Africa and then returned often to Africa as an adult. As a side note (not part of the book), the author married the cousin of Aldous Huxley, was friends with Joy Adamson, author of the African classic Born Free, and was widely considered to be a brilliant journalist, environmentalist, and government advisor. She died in 1997.
In 1981 the book was made into a seven-episode mini-series by A&E. It stars Hayley Mills as the author's mother and was shot on location in Kenya.
I'm so glad that I picked up an illustrated edition of this book, as it helped with my wild imagination while reading of Elspeth's adventures. KUDOS to the illustrator Francesca Pelizzoli.
Elspeth Huxley and her family travel to Thika, East Africa in 1907 to cultivate coffee crops. They had no idea what was in store for them. To read about the tribes of Africa and their customs and all the crazy adventures, not to mention the hardships was just so intriguing. A really good read that had me going to my dictionary more than once (I like new words!) I'm definitely passing this book on....
This is meant to be a memoir. Unlike other memoirs/diaries/correspondence that some GR readers think are novels, this one really is a novel presented as a memoir. We are told it covers the years when she was aged five to eight. How could a child as young as Elspeth supposedly is during the action, hear those detailed adult conversations and remember them, let alone comprehending what was going on?
It's excellently well written, and one could argue that the author talked to people as an adult and reconstructed the scrappy memories of childhood from rumor and gossip and fact remembered by others. But then we get the dream she relates in enormous detail, only to state in the very next sentence: "My dreams were always jumbled, and the next morning I could only remember bits of this one." Yeah...bits that form a detailed, coherent (for a dream) whole. Uh-huh.
Another thing that annoyed me was the repeated statement that the Masai and other African groups had no conception that an animal could feel pain. This is surprising when you consider how important, indeed basic, cattle are to their entire culture! But then both she and all the white adults around her simply assume that they are superior in every way to the people who have lived there since time was. That's the reason I've shelved it as "social realism"--it really does reflect the attitudes of the European (settlers? invaders? colonists?) of the time.
Many years ago I picked up The Mottled Lizard in a second-hand shop, which covers her adolescent years. At the time it made sense, as for many people the adolescent memories are the most lasting, coming as they do at an age when the youth feels their powers coming to them; everything is immediate and makes a lasting impression. Now, I feel that Huxley (who also wrote mystery novels) simply wove a good story out of what memories she had. Reading that volume I interpreted her constant criticisms of her parents as being the voice of that adolescent we've all been, which finds our parents' every word and action embarassing beyond belief. Putting this same patronising attitude in the mind and mouth of a small child who is supposedly sent miles on horseback to run errands for her parents as if she were a mini-adult, just makes the main character seem very mean-spirited.
I picked this book up randomly in a used book store without understanding how prolific or important Huxley was as a writer. As the back cover of my edition states, this is more of a re-creation than an exact account (along the lines of the Little House series), but, given her skill as a writer, I prefer the re-creation. (Although how this child happens to always just happens to be in a position to overhear adults carrying on their love affairs gets a little ridiculous about two-thirds in.) The tension between the white settlers and the African natives is also drawn with a detailed hand, but this is more due to her skill as a writer than any actual progressive attitude. Huxley may dwell on the ignorance of the natives when first confronted with paraffin lamps, but she dwells equally if not more on the ignorance of the settlers who try to farm from books and impose British "civilization" on those who do not need it. For her, to tell any other story would be to ignore the rich potential for drama. No doubt the same story from a Kikuyu POV would be very different, and no doubt plenty has been written on this issue by people more qualified than me. I read this book to get a flavor of the British colonial experience in Africa, and for this purpose, this book is perfect.