A Winning Look At Defeat

Alexandra Fuller grew up in Africa on the losing side. She was a little girl in the '70s in what was then Rhodesia. Her parents, white English emigre farmers, supported white rule in the middle of a revolution that went the other way. Oh, and they weren't just any sort of farmers. They grew tobacco. While British colonialism crumbled around them ("servants in white uniforms, stiff with desperate civilization"), the family struggled to keep a farm going and struggled even harder to maintain the pretense that their way of life was the right way, that everything was normal. Convoying into town with other whites (safety in numbers against guerrillas), dodging land mines all the way, the parents encouraged the children to sing. But what they sang bore little resemblance to normal children's car-trip songs: "One hundred baboons playing on a minefield. And if one baboon should accidentally explode, there'll be ninety-nine baboons playing on a minefield."

Mum shoots snakes in the pantry. The kids pick scorpions out of the swimming pool. Alexandra, or Bobo, as she was called growing up, was in grade school before she learned that black people had more than just a first name. "I am almost fourteen years old before I am formally invited into the home of a black African to share food." Everything about this childhood Fuller is describing seems off kilter, out of focus or just plain wrong, right from the first page: "Mum says, 'Don't come creeping into our room at night.'

"They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, 'Don't startle us when we're sleeping.'

" 'Why not?'

" 'We might shoot you.' "

Somehow, a bit at a time, Fuller made sense of it all, and in "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," her memoir of this topsy-turvy childhood, she gets all the wrongness exactly right. She never shies away from her parents' racism, or the fact of her mother's alcoholism, but she is always a subtle, humane witness. She notes their humor and bravery and pluck in the face of multiple disasters: they lost a war, they lost land and they lost children, two in infancy, one by drowning.

Sometimes it was simply too much for a little girl to bear. When her mother loses a child and suffers a nervous collapse, "it starts to get hard for me to know where Mum's madness ends and the world's madness begins. It's like being on a roundabout, spinning too fast. If I look inward, at my feet, or at my hands clutching the red-painted bar, I can see clearly, if narrowly, where I am in spite of a sick feeling in my stomach and a fear of looking up. But when I pluck up the courage to look up, the world is a terrifying, unhinged blur and I cannot determine whether it is me, or the world, that has come off its axis."

In the same way that she makes us see the goodness in people that it would be all too easy to condemn, Fuller also makes us see and feel the harsh, implacable beauty of Africa, a place so overwhelming that it renders everything else--everything human, that is, from political differences to simple desire--insignificant. "The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man's blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman's birthing with equal thirst. It doesn't care."

Thumbing back through my marked-up copy of this memoir, looking at the quotes I'd circled in my reading, I always kept reading well beyond what I'd marked the first time through, until I'd reread whole pages at a time, greedily gulping down the story all over again. Because this is not a book you read just once, but a tale of terrible beauty to get lost in over and over.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs TonightAlexandra Fuller
(Random House)