The gramophone had been suggested to Robin as a convenient way of breaking the ice with the natives. It enticed them, as a light attracts insects; once, as it were, captured, the advantages of signing on for work could be explained, and some would feel bold enough to try the experiment. So Robin took the gramophone and, when we were installed in tents, hopefully played ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ and ‘The Lost Chord’ over and over again. As the records were scratched and the gramophone an old one, extraordinary sounds emerged from its trumpet to be lost very quickly in the surrounding bush and long grass. Its only effect was to deflect Juma from his labours; he listened entranced; and one of the mules was found gazing pensively down the trumpet.
– The Flame Trees of Thika, chapter 3
In 1912, Nellie and Major Josceline Grant moved with their five-year-old daughter Elspeth to a patch of land in Thika, in what was then British East Africa, with the intention of creating a coffee plantation. In 1959, Elspeth Grant, by then Elspeth Huxley, published a book called The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood about the early years of her family’s life in Thika, recording her memories and illustrating how unprepared most of the European settlers were for colonial life in Africa.
In 1981, the BBC adapted The Flame Trees of Thika for television, starring Hayley Mills as Elspeth’s mother (called “Tillie” in the story while her father is called “Robin”), and a child actress named Holly Aird as Elspeth herself. And in 1982, my parents watched it on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” while expecting their first child, and decided to add the name “Elspeth” to their list of possible girl’s names.
As it turned out, their first child was a boy, but they held onto the name as a choice until I came along four years later.
I’m beginning my book blogging with The Flame Trees of Thika because I’m nearly 28 and I’ve never read it. I tried, back in high school, but lost interest after about twenty pages. I’ve never seen the television adaptation. I tried that, as well, but after a scene in which a newly hatched clutch of chicks is discovered to have been killed and partially devoured overnight by some particularly vicious type of ants, I couldn’t manage to continue.
I’m nearly a third of the way through now, so I thought I’d do an “initial impressions” sort of post.
One of my favorite books is My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of childhood years spent on the Greek island of Corfu before WWII, written by British naturalist Gerald Durrell. It’s a rib-crackingly funny series of anecdotes about his unabashedly eccentric family and the equally eccentric characters (human as well as other animals) encountered on the island. I recommend it to anyone and everyone as often as I can.
The Flame Trees of Thika is nowhere near as funny. It has moments that prompt a smile, but mostly there’s a quietly dreamy quality to it that is partially the nostalgic nature of the piece and partly the fact that it’s primarily drawn from the memories of a child. That said, there are some stylistic similarities between the two books that have to do with their historical context.
Thika may be set some twenty or so years earlier than My Family, but both are written from the point of view of the final decades of British colonialism. The way they discuss the native inhabitants they find is certainly patronizing and tinged with an assumption of British (or at least European) superiority in education, practicality, and values. It’s more clearly stated in Thika because of the nature of the Grant family endeavor there, as well as the fact that it’s Europeans dealing with African tribespeople instead of Britons dealing with Greek peasant farmers.
I hope I’m explaining this well. I hesitate to use the word “racist” because that has connotations of violence and hatred, but in Thika especially I can see (at the distance of a hundred years later) a sort of soft racism that manifests in ways such as the European settlers calling the African men “boys” or commenting on how no ruins or relics of structures must mean there is no civilization, no culture. I think it could possibly be described as a benign sort of racism – not in the sense of harmless, but in the sense of nonviolent and not knowing any better. Perhaps it’s clearest to say that Thika is dated. It is a relic of a very different time and different set of values, and I think it’s important that it be read as such. Context gives depth, but if one blames people dead and gone for behaving the best way they knew how simply because it doesn’t mesh with our current values, one risks missing the forest for the trees.
One of the things that strikes me about the book is Elspeth’s age. From the bits I’ve seen of the show and the descriptions of Elspeth’s activities, I had estimated her at somewhere around 8-10 years old. Learning that she was five when they arrived in Thika makes the story all the more remarkable.
She seems to have been one of those quiet, observant children who manage to hear a lot of what might not be appropriate for their age. Adults confide in her when they have nobody else to whom they may express frustration or fear. She is able to fade into the background and listen to the grown-ups talking, or listen to them after they think she’s asleep. It’s not a sneaky thing, just a natural behavior of some personality types. And to be so young and an only child in that situation – she must have had to grow up quickly.
Anyone out there reading along? Still time to catch up – there are about 200 pages left in the book to go!