Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Fuller)

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Alexandra Fuller, 2002
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375758997

In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate.

Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—March 29, 1969
Where—Glossop, Derbyshire, UK
Raised—Central Africa
Education—B. A., Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada
Currently—lives in Wilson, Wyoming

Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969. In 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in Rhodesia. After that country’s civil war in 1981, the Fullers moved first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Fuller received a B.A. from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1994, she moved to Wyoming, where she still lives. She has two children. (From the publisher.)

Her own words:
(From two Barnes & Nobel interviews—in 2003 and 2004)

• There isn't a moment that I am not thinking about Africa. I am either thinking about it in relation to what I am writing at that time, or I am thinking about it in relations to where I am geographically (I am writing this at my desk in my office overlooking the Tetons, which could not be further, you might argue, from Zambia. Yet, I have been thinking all morning that the cry of an angry great blue heron—they are nesting in the aspens at the end of our property—sound like Chacma baboons).

• The best way for me to evoke the same sense of place and the same smells and the same space of Africa is when I am out riding. I have a rather naughty little Arab mare, whom I accompany (it would be an exaggeration to claim that I "ride" her) into the mountains almost every day when the snow is clear. Something about being away from people, alone with a horse and a dog, fills me with an intense sense of joy and well-being, and I always return from these excursions inspired (if not to write, then to be a better mother, or to cook something fabulous, or to do the laundry).

• I have come to the conclusion that I can only write about something if I have actually smelled it for myself. I have no idea what this says about me, but I think it's a fact of my work. I also cannot think of something without immediately evoking its smell (for example, if I think of my father, I think of the smell of cigarette smoke and the bitter scent of his sweat—he has never once worn deodorant, so his smell is very organic and wonderfully his—and of the faint aroma of tea and engine oil he exudes). Once, in France, a particularly thorough journalist (he had 50 questions for me!) said, somewhat accusingly, 'You have written here in your book' (it was Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) 'about the smell of frog sperm. What exactly does frog sperm smell of?' And without hesitating for a moment, I replied, 'Cut turnips,' which I think surprised both of us.

When asked what book most influenced her life, here is her response:

I remember the visceral thrill and horror and pain and sheer astonishment I felt when I first read Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. I was 14 years old, and I was sitting in the field beyond the art and science laboratories, under the stink trees at my high school in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was winter (I remember the chilled air mixed with the smell of the trees, which is a sort of mild spilled-sewer smell, and the rough feel of my school uniform on my dry legs, and I remember plucking up tufts of winter-dry grass and the shouts of the girls playing hockey on the lower fields). I swallowed the book whole in a single, stunned afternoon. For days after that, I felt as if I carried the diary and Anne's voice around inside me, as if I was seeing the world through her eyes and speaking it with her sharp, witty tongue, and all the time, I was feeling her terrible confinement and feeling a sort of sickness for how her life had ended. I wanted to swim back through time and warn her that her family would be betrayed; urge her not to give up hope; tell her that the war would be over one day.

The diary was my introduction to nonfiction—if you don't count the cheerful account of Gerald Durrell's young life in Greece in My Family and Other Animals and the short, sanitized accounts of the lives of the English monarchs that I read, or the biographies of supposedly mild-mannered authors of children's books that I inhaled. With the diary, I was struck, not only by how compelling real life can be to read but also by how beautifully written it can be—especially by one so young.

Until I read Anne Frank's diary, I had found books a literal escape from what could be the harsh reality around me. After I read the diary, I had a fresh way of viewing the both literature and the world. From then on, I found I was impatient with books that were not honest or that were trivial and frivolous. Honesty, I found, translated across all languages and experiences and informed the reader about their own world.

For almost the first time in my life, after I read the diary, I found myself thinking about how capricious and evil politics can be, about how racism can fling young lives (old lives, all lives) into turmoil and death. Even though the Holocaust has its own awful place in history for the sheer ghastliness of thinking that brought it about, and the fact that so many died so pointlessly and in such a terrible fashion, I couldn't help thinking about it in terms of the world that I knew. We had recently gone through a war in Rhodesia, in which whites (my parents included) had fought to keep blacks oppressed, without a vote, and without the rights that we whites were entitled to. Blacks were oppressed for being black—they had to shop in different stores, attend different schools, they were spat on, beaten, scorned, dismissed as third-class citizens. I remember thinking, This book should have taught us never to do such things again to one another. And I felt profoundly hopeless for the human race. If Anne Frank—that clear, acerbic, innocent voice could be ignored...then who would we listen to? (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is surprisingly engaging and even moving.
Stephen Clingsman - New York Times

A classic is born in this tender, intensely moving and even delightful journey through a white African girl's childhood. Born in England and now living in Wyoming, Fuller was conceived and bred on African soil during the Rhodesian civil war (1971-1979), a world where children over five "learn[ed] how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill." With a unique and subtle sensitivity to racial issues, Fuller describes her parents' racism and the wartime relationships between blacks and whites through a child's watchful eyes. Curfews and war, mosquitoes, land mines, ambushes and "an abundance of leopards" are the stuff of this childhood. "Dad has to go out into the bush... and find terrorists and fight them"; Mum saves the family from an Egyptian spitting cobra; they both fight "to keep one country in Africa white-run." The "A" schools ("with the best teachers and facilities") are for white children; "B" schools serve "children who are neither black nor white"; and "C" schools are for black children. Fuller's world is marked by sudden, drastic changes: the farm is taken away for "land redistribution"; one term at school, five white students are "left in the boarding house... among two hundred African students"; three of her four siblings die in infancy; the family constantly sets up house in hostile, desolate environments as they move from Rhodesia to Zambia to Malawi and back to Zambia. But Fuller's remarkable affection for her parents (who are racists) and her homeland (brutal under white and black rule) shines through. This affection, in spite of its subjects' prominent flaws, reveals their humanity and allows the reader directentry into her world. Fuller's book has the promise of being widely read and remaining of interest for years to come. Photos not seen by PW. (On-sale Dec. 18) Forecast: Like Anne Frank's diary, this work captures the tone of a very young person caught up in her own small world as she witnesses a far larger historical event. It will appeal to those looking for a good story as well as anyone seeking firsthand reportage of white southern Africa. The quirky title and jacket will propel curious shoppers to pick it up.
Publishers Weekly

It is difficult for most people even to imagine the world described in this book, let alone live in it as a child: the nights are dark, scary, and filled with strange noises; the people welcome you and despise you at the same time; there is a constant anxious feeling burning in your stomach, which, you later realize, is fear of the unrest surrounding you. The British-born Fuller grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), losing three siblings to disease as her father fought in the Rhodesian civil war and her mother managed the farm. She approaches her childhood with reserve, leaving many stories open to interpretation while also maintaining a remarkable clarity about what really transpired in her homeland, in her own home, and in her head. The narrative seems complicated, weaving together war, politics, racial issues, and alcoholism, but its emotional core remains honest, playful, and unapologetic; it hardly seems possible that this 32-year-old has so much to say and says it so well. In this powerful debut, Fuller fully succeeds in memorializing the beauty of each desert puddle and each African summer night sky while also recognizing that beauty can lie hidden in the faces of those who have crossed her path. Highly recommended.
Library Journal

Fuller's debut is a keen-eyed, sharp-voiced memoir of growing up white in 1970s Africa. Born in England in 1969, the author by age three had moved to civil-war-torn Rhodesia, where her parents had lived before they lost an infant son to meningitis. Tim and Nicola Fuller ran a farm on Rhodesia's eastern edge. Mozambique, just across the border, was deep into its own civil war, and in this hostile geopolitical climate the Fullers struggled for a toehold that would keep Rhodesia white-ruled. In 1976, Nicola gave birth to a daughter who drowned in a duck puddle less than two years later. Minority rule ended in 1979; the country began its gradual, uneasy metamorphosis into independent Zimbabwe. The Fullers lost their land; Nicola bore and for the third time lost a child. To gain distance from all this failure, the family moved to dictator-controlled Malawi before ultimately settling in Zambia, where Tim and Nicola remain to this day. Fuller makes no apologies for her parents' (especially her mother's) politics. The loose structure and short takes here crystallize and polish the general subjects—race, politics, history, home, loss—into diamond-hard clarity without sacrificing the pace and intensity of the narrative or distracting the reader from the appeal of the personal. Like Dinesen, the author takes an elegiac tone, but it's balanced by a bouncy lyricism derived from compression, humor, and gimlet-eyed compassion. Fuller loved and loves her Africa; in the final analysis that passion takes a bright and vivid story to the next level, and even further. An illuminating, even thrillingly fresh perspective on the continent's much-discussed post-colonial problems.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Fuller compares the smell of Africa to "black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass." She describes "an explosion of day birds...a crashing of wings" and "the sound of heat. The grasshoppers and crickets sing and whine. Drying grass crackles. Dogs pant." How effective is the author in drawing the reader into her world with the senses of sound, smell, and taste? Can you find other examples of her ability to evoke a physical and emotional landscape that pulses with life? What else makes her writing style unique?

2. Given their dangerous surroundings in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia and a long streak of what young Bobo describes as "bad, bad luck," why does the Fuller family remain in Africa?

3. Drawing on specific examples, such as Nicola Fuller's desire to "live in a country where white men still ruled" and the Fuller family's dramatic interactions with African squatters, soldiers, classmates, neighbors, and servants, how would you describe the racial tensions and cultural differences portrayed in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, particularly between black Africans and white Africans?

4. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is rich with humorous scenes and dialogue, such as the visit by two missionaries who are chased away by the family's overfriendly dogs, a bevy of ferocious fleas, and the worst tea they have ever tasted. What other examples of comedy can you recall, and what purpose do you think they serve in this serious memoir?

5. Fuller describes the family's move to Burma Valley as landing them "right [in] the middle, the very birthplace and epicenter, of the civil war in Rhodesia." Do her youthful impressions give a realistic portrait of the violent conflict?

6. The New York Times Book Review described Nicola as "one of the most memorable characters of African memoir." What makes the author's portrait of her mother so vivid? How would you describe Bobo's father?

7. Define the complex relationship between Bobo and Vanessa. How do the two sisters differ in the ways that they relate to their parents?

8. Animals are ever present in the book. How do the Fullers view their domesticated animals, as compared to the wild creatures that populate their world?

9. Of five children born to Nicola Fuller, only two survive. "All people know that in one way or the other the dead must be laid to rest properly," Alexandra Fuller writes. Discuss how her family deals with the devastating loss of Adrian, Olivia, and Richard. Are they successful in laying their ghosts to rest?

10. According to Bobo, "Some Africans believe that if your baby dies, you must bury it far away from your house, with proper magic and incantations and gifts for the gods, so that the baby does not come back." Later, at Devuli Ranch, soon after the narrator and her sister have horrified Thompson, the cook, by disturbing an old gravesite, Bobo's father announces that he is going fishing: "If the fishing is good, we'll stay here and make a go of it. If the fishing is bad, we'll leave." What role does superstition play in this book? Look for examples in the behavior and beliefs of both black and white Africans.

11. Consider Fuller's interactions with black Africans, including her nanny in Rhodesia and the children she plays "boss and boys" with, as well as with Cephas the tracker and, later, the first black African to invite her into his home. Over the course of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, how does the narrator change and grow?

12. By the end of the narrative, how do you think the author feels about Africa? Has the book changed your own perceptions about this part of the world?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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