Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
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's review
Jun 01, 2017

really liked it

Each of us is defined by certain critical events in our lives. Alexandra Fuller, called Bobo as a child by family members, had more than her share of defining events during her childhood in Africa in the 1970s.

The family's homes in various parts of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and later in Malawi and Zambia are not exactly depicted as garden spots. For starters, throughout the narrative she mentions the ever-present heat, e.g., "It's eyeball-burning hot ... It is so hot that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire." She describes "heat waves dancing like spear-toting warriors off the grassland." One day a spitting cobra shows up in the pantry and blinds two of the family's dogs before Mum shreds it (not to mention the pantry as well) with an automatic rifle. Then, rushing those dogs to a veterinarian means negotiating a road where ambushes and land mines are entirely likely. Mum slides an Uzi out the passenger window and says, "Be ready to put your heads down, girls." In town, Bobo sees "Africans whose hatred reflects like sun in a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore."

Because they're perpetually surrounded by that hatred, and are in fact living in a war zone, Bobo's parents sleep with loaded guns and caution her and her sister not to come tiptoeing into their room in the night ("We might shoot you").

The unspoken question throughout is: Why in the blazes are they here? Okay, the England she mentions may be wet and dreary and all that, and apparently the family had financial issues, but still, why would anybody choose to take a family into an environment like this? Children do not typically understand their elders' motivations, but in reading Alexandra's account one immediately perceives that something is not right. (I'm reminded a little of the parents in The Glass Castle.)

Young Bobo actually accepts the above as the normal state of affairs, but the defining events are still unfolding, for her as well as for other family members. That is to say, things get worse.

Because of those defining events, Bobo's Mum transforms from happy optimism to life as "a crazy, sad drunk." Before Bobo arrived on the scene, she'd already lost her son to some unnamed illness. Further tragedies strike the family during Bobo's childhood. Also, Mum in particular had subscribed to the views of the late Cecil John Rhodes, who'd proclaimed "the more of the world we [the Anglo-Saxon race] inhabit, the better it is for the human race." At the time these events occur, reality is eclipsing Rhodes' dream of establishing a corridor of white governance from Cape Town to Cairo. Consequences include the appearance of squatters on their farm, people who have built huts and planted crops without permission. Mum confronts them only to receive a threatening visit by armed soldiers. It's not their farm any more. Also, health care has deteriorated to "socialist" levels, with dire implications when the family needs medical help. The fighting may be over, but now, instead of being "surrounded by violent mutilation and risk of a sudden definitive end," they find themselves living amid "malnutrition and the effects of overcrowded, unsanitary shantytowns." As for the new government:

"People who disagree with His Excellency, the President for Life and 'Chief of Chiefs,' are frequently found to be the victims of car crashes (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets); or dead in their beds of heart attacks (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets); or the recipients of some not-quite-fresh seafood (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets)."

Seeing both her family and her world going off the rails, Mum resorts to drink and lamentations and mental illness. At one point Bobo observes that she "hardly bothers to blink. It's as if she's a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking riverbed."

I hope it's not a spoiler to say the family doesn't utterly crash and burn. When this many things go wrong, somehow one expects the downward trajectory to continue to the point of complete ruin. But no, life goes on, diminished but still worthwhile, still with occasional moments of humor and fulfillment, which I suppose is the best most folks have been able to hope for, down through the ages.

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Reading Progress

April 26, 2010 – Shelved
May 31, 2017 – Started Reading
June 6, 2017 – Finished Reading

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