The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhoodby Elspeth Huxley Published 1 2 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
Ever get to the end of a book and contemplate flipping back to the first page and starting all over again? This is a book whose world I just want to continue living in but, like the ending of a book, is a world that just doesn't exist anymore. So much of the book, though it deals with people trying to start a new frontier life in Africa, is really about the ending of things, specifically the end of old Europe with the onset of World War 1.
Elspeth, in the last chapter, writes about how she realized, quite suddenly and with some fright, how strangely interconnected all things are in life. She blames herself for the death of Kate, not because of any direct fault of her own, but the indirect responsibility she had in the wounding of a buffalo. All of a sudden the rational world she felt so sure of was gone and now replaced with uncertainty. One could also quite easily see how people might then turn to superstition and folk magic to explain their place in the universe. Charms, sacrifices, ceremonies, all the ways of life for the native Africans don't then seem so strange when we look at it through the lens of our own uncertainty in the scheme of the universe.
But this one death and this one series of events is, all the while, back-dropped by the war in Europe. Events there of a much larger scale were colliding and would claim the lives of millions of people who were caught up in events they could not foresee or control. Ian being the earliest example of a victim to circumstance.
The whole book is filled with the parallels of their lives and that of WW1: the irrigation trenches being filled with water mirror the trenches of the un-moving fronts, the tribal warfare parallels the conflict between nation states. In some ways the book is as much about what happened to the whole world at the beginning of the 20th century as it is about one young girls' experience growing up in Africa with her pioneering and liberal thinking parents.
Elspeth makes a strong case for how the world should behave. She always details the solutions that people come up with be it how best to grow coffee in Africa, deal with tribal politics, or deal with some unusual neighbors - she is always looking for a way to make things work. And it's no wonder because much of the world was totally breaking down.
But she never becomes sentimental about her experiences. Yes it is a very romantic setting and stunningly beautiful, but Elspeth is a realist who leans towards cautious optimism. The characters in the book earn all their emotions, and there is never any melodrama or silliness here. And a lot of how she makes this work is by seeing the world through such a young persons eyes. She only ever gets to see and hear snippets of what's going on around her so she, like us, have to piece so much together.
This books great strength is that it takes us to that time and place, makes us empathize with this little girl and gets us to see the world for what it could be without ever cheating us emotionally. This is a brilliant story; one of the greatest books I have ever read. In fact, I place this book right alongside Sergey Aksakov's "A Family Chronicle" as one of the finest pieces of writing ever published.
I absolutely adore this novel like nothing else I have ever read.
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.
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.
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.
Firstly: the only horse in this book seems to be on the front cover. That's why I bought it, but it's not a horse book in the slightest.
This autobiography tells the story of 6 year old Elspeth and her early years in Africa before World War 1. Her parents (who she calls by name) travel to Thika where they begin a farm by utilising locals for labour.
The story is very slow, and it took me a long time to get into it, but once I did I loved it. It's descriptive about the things around her, and Elspeth often describes the smells of the people around her and I love that touch. I enjoyed the innocence which is bought to the story - one of her neighbours is obviously having an affair, and she cannot work out why the husband doesn't get along with the lovely man who visits.
I umm'd and aah'd about whether to give this a 4 or a 5, but settled on a 4 because of how long it took me to get into the slow pacing.
I enjoyed this memoir very much. I did think it odd that Huxley referred to her parents by their first names. I also have reservations that at 6 or 7 she remembered things that clearly but I suppose every good book depends on good research.