Imagine a childhood with almost no boundaries. Kids haphazardly look after each other. They get drunk with their mother and smoke with their dad. There's no such thing as too many dogs. It's a tomboy's dream. That's the kind of unfettered upbringing Alexandra Fuller had, coming of age in Africa, where her family migrated from one country to another in response to the swiftly changing political climates of the 1970s and '80s.
In her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight Fuller is at her finest when drawing vignettes that capture her unorthodox, no-rules raising. One of the book's many delightfully ironic moments takes place when Alexandra turns down her mother's invitation to split a bottle of whiskey. But Fuller's spotty parenting also has its dark side. At a very young age, she is assigned to keep an eye on her baby sister, Olivia. When, as children do, she becomes distracted, her little sister drowns. It's clear that Fuller carries the sorrow of this loss into adulthood. Fuller's portrait of her colorful and eccentric mother may be the memoir's greatest strength. Fuller doesn't downplay her mother's drinking or other excesses. In one vividly depicted scene, her mother shoots up the kitchen pantry, utterly demolishing its contents, to kill a cobra. Though Mum has many likable and heroic qualities, Fuller does not whitewash her racist politics. As late as 1999, Mum gets drunk and brags to a visitor that she and her husband fought to keep part of Africa under white rule. A less adroit writer might bore the reader with long expository passages about the book's revolutionary backdrop, the work done on her family's succession of farms or the local economy. But Fuller chooses to string together the episodes from her childhood that best encapsule its original flavor. Unlike other authors who have chosen Africa as a backdrop, she doesn't fill her pages with sunsets, wildlife and vast plains. Instead, Fuller concentrates on the psychological landscape of her family on which the dark continent's wide-open spaces have left an irrevocable stamp.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.