BrokenTune's Reviews > Out of Africa / Shadows on the Grass

Out of Africa / Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen
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did not like it
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"There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more."

There is some truly beautiful writing in this book.

When describing the land and the wildlife of Africa, Dinesen (i.e. Karen Blixen) truly shines as a writer and I can only believe that it is this aspect of her book that resonates with so many who rate this book, Out of Africa, highly. I mean, the film of the same title is not really based on and has little to do with this book, so clearly readers must see something else in the book that appeals to them - and I'm guessing it is the lyrical description of the African landscape. If the book contained itself to her impressions of the land, I would have loved this book, too.

Unfortunately, no amount of lyrical prose was able to outweigh the aspects of the book that really drove me nuts, none more so than the way author writes about the people of Kenya and, by doing so, what we learn about the author herself.

After reading only a couple of chapter I was utterly conflicted whether the author's constant racism was a result of her genuine believe that white Europeans were supreme to the primitive natives or whether her offensive descriptions of "the Natives" was a result of some sort of mistake in articulating what she really meant.
Seeing the she continued to generalise about African people and compare them to animals throughout the book, it leaves little argument against the assumption that Dinesen really believed in the superiority of the white "Immigrants".

So the next question that occurred (and as one fellow reader pointed out also) is, how much of the casual racism was a result of the time that Dinesen lived in?

Well, seeing that she lived in Africa between 1915 and 1931 (Out of Africa was published in 1937), it is of course to be expected that her views are reflecting the mores of a less enlightened time, which is somewhat ironic as she fills the book with literary and philosophical references in an attempt to show off her worldliness and pretends to present herself as an enlightened, witty and intellectual woman. This in particular made me want to smack her with a copy Markham's West with the Night. Markham may have had her shortcomings but she did not need to fuel her self-confidence by patronising anyone, least her African neighbours.

As much as Dinesen's racism may have been a reflection of her time, it became clear when reading the first story in Shadows on the Grass, that Dinesen's believe of superiority must have been ingrained in her more deeply than just as an expression of a sentiment that was popular within her social circles.

Shadows on the Grass was published in 1960. So, at that time Dinesen had not only returned to Europe, but had also widely travelled, was at home in the artistic and literary circles of Europe and the US, and as any enlightened intellectual of the time would have been exposed to current affairs of the world such as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US, the demise of the colonial systems as a result of the moral issues raised with supremacist theories after WWII, etc. Yet, the first story in Shadows on the Grass contains the same racist bullshit as Out of Africa including the following:

"The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages. The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me at the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but they stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine."

She even goes on to say that she found some pseudo-scientific theory to support her musings on the qualities of different races. Of course, this only takes up one paragraph in the book and she does not present any arguments that may contradict her opinions.

How is this supportable by the justification that she was a writer of her time? Had she been "of her time" I would have expected her to move on, but no.

What the book also told me about Dinesen is that she had more appreciation and compassion for animals than for human beings. She was against killing animals for sport - except lions (lions were fair game, apparently), which was quite unusual for a member of the society she lived in, and also considering that the love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, organised safaris for wealthy big game hunters. And yet, when confronted with the victim of a shooting accident, a child who had been shot accidentally, all she can say is the following:

"When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child's head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood. So now I know what it feels like to heal by imposition."

So, her first instinct is to shoot the child? The second insight she gains is that she deludes herself into thinking she could heal by laying on hands?

Actually, there is more about her delusional exploits as a medic when deciding to become the primary medical care giver to the Natives on her farm. Granted, any first aid may have been better than none, but at no time does she pretend to want to find out if what she's doing is of any medical help, and it looks like failures didn't make her stop to think, either:

"I knew very little of doctoring, just what you learn at a first aid course. But my renown as a doctor had been spread by a few chance lucky cures, and had not been decreased the catastrophic mistakes that I had made."


So, again while some of the writing is great, I just cannot muster any sympathy or liking for the author, who, to me, came across as an ignorant, utterly delusional, racist, ever pretending to be something she was not.
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Reading Progress

November 21, 2015 – Started Reading
November 21, 2015 – Shelved
November 21, 2015 –
page 20
4.33% ""Noble found I\n ever the Native\n and insipid the Immigrant."\n \n Yup. None more so than the author it seems. This is going to be long, frustrating read."
November 21, 2015 –
page 23
4.98% ""I knew very little of doctoring, just what you learn at a first aid course. But my renown as a doctor had been spread by a few chance lucky cures, and had not been decreased the catastrophic mistakes that I had made."\n \n Can I please hit the author with her own book? Please??"
November 21, 2015 –
page 85
18.4% ""There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more."\n \n Nicely written."
November 21, 2015 –
page 100
21.65% "And she's back to form:\n \n "One can always impress a Native by wasting more time over a matter than he does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish.""
November 22, 2015 –
page 189
40.91% "What a weird memoir."
November 22, 2015 –
page 289
62.55%
November 22, 2015 –
page 372
80.52% "Well, that's Out of Africa finished. \n Now only Shadows on the Grass left to read, thankfully."
November 22, 2015 –
page 404
87.45% "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo....."
November 22, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Char (new)

Char Wow, bummer.


BrokenTune Charlene wrote: "Wow, bummer."

Yup.


message 3: by Violet (new)

Violet wells This book was a bit like someone who has forgotten to wash for a month wearing a beautiful ballgown. The surface is often dazzling in its elegance but when you get up close there's an uncomfortable stink.


BrokenTune Violet wrote: "This book was a bit like someone who has forgotten to wash for a month wearing a beautiful ballgown. The surface is often dazzling in its elegance but when you get up close there's an uncomfortable..."

That's a very apt description. I felt, too, that there was a lot of surface, but scratch it and it falls apart.


Tristan Very very apt descriptions. I am inclined to give Dinesen as much leeway as is possible without denying the decidedly racist attitudes of the book, but I'm inclined to give that sort of leeway to all sorts of terrible behavior (hope for second chances, I suppose). I say this because I think this book is valuable as a cultural artifact of the world's dark history--like Gone With the Wind--despite, or perhaps because of that which it embodies.


BrokenTune Tristan wrote: "Very very apt descriptions. I am inclined to give Dinesen as much leeway as is possible without denying the decidedly racist attitudes of the book, but I'm inclined to give that sort of leeway to a..."

I agree with you that the book is a valuable artifact and has historic value. I'm not saying it should disappear from the face of the earth. On the contrary, without this book and others (like Gone With the Wind), it would be more difficult to access history without relying on the research of a few specialist historians. And, IMO, history needs to be accessible for people to make up their own minds about things. (Seriously, I'm not trying to get on a soap box, it's just that I quite like history.)

I also tried to give Dinesen the benefit of doubt as some of her ramblings were just ambiguous - like she seemed to care for individuals, but then dismissed a whole section of the population by a generalisation about race. That irked me. She did this on other subjects, too, like her ponderings on the status/role of women - it was almost like there was a disconnect in her thinking - she makes a statement and accepts it as a truth without considering other aspects or consequences.

As relevant as Dinesen's book is as record of it's time, it did not make for an interesting or enjoyable reading experience for me.

I might try another one of her stories at some point, but from what I have discovered about her, it's unlikely she'll feature much in my library.


Tristan Understandable. Your criticisms are valid and the disconnect between conception of group and conception of individual can be painful. Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully; you have made me think about this book in a more multifaceted manner.
And I agree about the need for accessible history.


message 8: by Char (new)

Char I love to see disagreements talked out in this way. You're both making valid points and there's no name calling going on here. You should both go into politics! ;)


BrokenTune Tristan wrote: "Understandable. Your criticisms are valid and the disconnect between conception of group and conception of individual can be painful. Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully; you h..."

Thank you, Tristan. Have you read Beryl Markham's book West with the Night? I had read this before Out of Africa and may have been, not biased exactly, but having high expectations about another memoir set in the same time and place.


BrokenTune Charlene wrote: "I love to see disagreements talked out in this way. You're both making valid points and there's no name calling going on here. You should both go into politics! ;)"

Politics? Never! Going into politics would most certainly require one to take up name-calling. :(

Seriously, though, it is the whole point of GR (or it was anyway) to be able to discuss different ideas and aspects with fellow readers, even if there differences of opinion.


Tristan I will read West with the Night when I get a chance; it seems most interesting.


message 12: by Char (new)

Char BrokenTune wrote: "Charlene wrote: "I love to see disagreements talked out in this way. You're both making valid points and there's no name calling going on here. You should both go into politics! ;)"

Politics? Neve..."


:) I know that's the whole point of GR, but oftentimes, it doesn't work out that way in real life. In this case, it did. And I enjoyed the discussion between the both of you. :)


message 13: by Usmishka83 (new) - added it

Usmishka83 Thank you all for this beautiful discussion. Yes, it happens rarely these days.
I haven’t read the book yet, next on my list.
I don’t know why, but sometimes I like to read one negative review of the book before reading. Glad I went across yours this time.
I guess it helps me to see another point of view and pay attention better.
Curious what my opinion will be of this book. :)


message 14: by Liz (new) - added it

Liz Its her perspective, and all of us have our own. There will always be stigmas amongst different cultures. This has always been always will be.


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