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Out of Africa (Review)

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Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass
Isak Dinesen, 1937 and 1960
480 pp. (incl. Shadows)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April 2007

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

With that beautifully modulated opening, Dinesen begins her epic memoir: 17 years (1914–31) as a coffee grower in Kenya, then a British protectorate. This is a powerful love story—but not the one between Redford and Streep as told in the 1985 movie.

The book's love affair is with Africa, and Dinesen's writings capture its majestic beauty: the land, wildlife, and Kenyan people.< br />
Much of the book is spent recounting her relationship with the tribal people who live at the edge of “her” coffee plantation. Dinesen gains their respect and friendship and speaks of their culture in a strange mix of awe and condescension. She works hard on their behalf, protecting them from the British and the system of laws that prevents native people from owning their own land!

Dinesen is an expert hunter who, as her loyal friend and servant Farah boasts, “never misses a thing.” Yet our current sensitivity to endangered wildlife makes it hard not to cringe while reading of her safaris. Her own accounts make her shootings—and her pride in them—appear wanton and troubling. We have to remind ourselves that hers was a different time.

What we take from the story is our awe for Dinesen—her courage, will, and independence. She is a real-life proto-feminist, capable of asserting her feminine charm and completely disregarding it. A tribal chief once tells Dinesen how proud his people were of the beautiful dress she had worn to an important tribal dance (a ritual she had arranged for the Prince of Wales). “It pleases our hearts when we think about it,” the chief says, because “every day on the farm, you are terribly badly dressed.”

In her day Isak Dinesen was known as an oral storyteller, a Scheherazade who wove tales of enchantment for her audiences. In this work, she has created an equally enchanting written memoir. Out of Africa will generate thoughtful discussions of colonialism, feminism, religion and spirituality for any book club who chooses this beautiful work.

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