Book Review: Monkey’s Wedding

Monkey’s Wedding by Rossandra White

2017 Independent Publisher Award Medalist
2017 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist
2017 International Book Awards Finalist
2017 Paris Book Festival Awards Honorable Mention

Rossandra White is the author of the multiple award-winning

Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

Anyone who has ever witnessed a sun shower and is asked about it later likely experiences a variety of curious and immediate memories. For myself, two branches of thought come together, starting with my mother’s frequent assertion that rain on one’s wedding day is good luck. This merges with the historical status of animals as purveyors of phenomena explanation in such folkloric expressions as monkey’s wedding, which refers to rain falling when the sun is shining brightly. It is magical and wondrous, typically a short-lived event that nevertheless has the capacity to elicit thrill and awe at nature’s fantastic contradiction. Perhaps people once witnessed a group of monkeys acting joyfully during a sun shower and related it to what made sense to them, deciding the simians must be on their way to a wedding.

In my own memory a monkey’s wedding really is magical, and so, might I add, is Monkey’s Wedding. Author Rossandra White brings the theme to bear on her novel starting with the cover’s color tones—dark profile of a hut and baobab tree set against the bright, hot orange and red of the sun and sky to the contradictions throughout, sometimes so subtle we don’t recognize their droplets as they nevertheless work out as part of the situations within which they exist.


Jiminy. That’s what she called her baby brother, instead of James or Jimmy. He reminded her of that little cricket from Pinocchio: head too large for his bird body, all that thick black hair, and when he wasn’t crying or vomiting, he chirped.


Elizabeth and her British parents live in 1950s Rhodesia, members of a society in transition as indigenous peoples begin to demonstrate their resentment of white rule. Annie, Elizabeth’s expectant and often moody mother, seeks to keep her daughter separated from “those kaffirs” even while the girl is developing a disallowed friendship with Turu, son of Nelson, the family’s houseboy (an ordinary but telling appellation). Though she reveals to her mother he is nasty toward his son, Annie tends to be focused on how the help are “getting bolder.” The pair maintain a strained relationship and Elizabeth’s father plays peacemaker, though she at times agrees with her mother’s assessment.

Turu, too, evades suspicious adult eyes as he navigates through time with his grandmother, a Shona high priestess who has chosen the boy for a position he severely doubts he can fill. White expertly shifts between perspectives, revealing some but not all there is to know from any given quarter. Her narrative is also tinged with a feeling of silent mystery, as if we are approaching something that knows we are there, and the sense of expectancy is heavy as Anesu the priestess seems to speak for our benefit, all the while enjoying our unfamiliarity, playing us a bit as she leads us along a path we know not.

The plot’s parameters widen, and we see Elizabeth and Turu off on their escapades, ordinary activities for children—even their plot to steal extra sherbit from the shopkeeper— were it not for the underlying, unspoken awareness of their race differences. Each child harbors thoughts about the other’s race and its implications, though they also spend time exchanging information and peacefully learning about one another. The book’s title reflects their friendship as they sustain a mostly productive relationship amidst societal shakeup. They do row on occasion, their tiffs sometimes being related to the increasing temperature and pressures of racial tensions booming over their heads, but their childhood wisdom often sets right derailed moments and each achieves opportunities to see for themselves who the other really is.

As the author steers us through events, discord amongst the unseen occurs too, as ancient spirits demand reckoning, pulling Turu into events in ways that confuse and shake him, and Elizabeth seeks a path into a world hidden from her, all while in plain sight. With Elizabeth, we catch proverbial glimpses of another world, perhaps with some recognition as Anesu performs chants and prepares poultices, admonishes Turu’s avoidance of his duties and bestows upon Elizabeth something that recognizes a connection even she doesn’t quite understand. Exotic though it may seem, it offers a real alternative to Elizabeth while powerful forces of both worlds thunder over their lives, threatening everything they know.

Thanks to White’s proficiency in winding through varying perspectives, scenes and histories, details are deliciously different yet also familiar, and we find that identity isn’t always what we might have previously experienced. Amidst exposure to traditional mythology, we also encounter a moment in which Turu’s handling of a modern machine is optimal given Elizabeth’s inability to do. There is, of course, the male/female stereotype to consider, but Turu’s ability to get the car running also highlights the reality that this mechanical place is also his world, whatever his ethnicity. Afterward,

 [a]lmost right away, it felt as if Jasu, God of the Sun, had turned his face toward them. The deep green of the sisal turned to hard green, scrubby grass the color of a lion’s haunch. The smell of rain hung in the air. On the distant horizon in front of them, the huge baobab tree beside bwana van Zyl’s shop looked like a fat stalk with tiny twigs branching upward. Acacia and other thorn trees dotted the veld. Three hundred yards away, five eland buck appeared out of nowhere and floated on a heat wave past the jagged outline of his people’s ruins.

Later, Elizabeth joyfully shifts attention to the ongoing monkey’s wedding, explaining to Turu about making a wish. His dismissive attitude highlights awareness of their shifting, sometimes merging, roles when she owns the superstition and he practical modern knowledge, bringing to delightful life the novel’s epigraph, an African proverb about sharing paths. White doesn’t spell any of this out, which is part of what makes it so superb. She allows her characters to be who they are, retaining the emotional or mystical nature of any given moment by employing a beautifully minimalist style.

Having said that, it should be noted that the author also brings to life these amazing events with imagery so stunning it provokes the senses and emotions, allowing readers to experience the moments as well, easily calling to mind scenes both reminiscent and foreign, whether ordinary or exceptional, a further union of opposites.

After tea Elizabeth headed for her bedroom, where she lay on her back on the cool cement floor. The tin roof creaked as the sun beat down on it. In minutes, she was asleep.

*

Night had spread its blanket over everything.

*

 The air stirred around her, and she opened her eyes. A short distance away, down a gentle slope, sat a hut with walls the rich color of a gazelle’s hide and thatch that was plump and golden. A strange, mesmerizing, blue-tinged fire burnt in front.

*

 He returned with the milk and plunked the bucket on the table harder than he meant to. Milk sloshed up. The small brown creature on the other end of the table gave a short jerk of surprise and blew a spit bubble.

The contradictions rain down on us throughout the book, though sometimes so subtle in application it’s as if a shower has passed us before we had time to register it. Black and white, magic and ordinary, resentment and joy, life and death, young and old, outspoken and voiceless—these and more mingle with one another, like a monkey’s wedding, inspiring those it touches as they at times recognize a spiritual connection made between a twain that ordinarily “shall not meet.”

While Monkey’s Wedding now is amongst my top five reading recommendations for those wishing to know more about Africa, I’d also add that part of White’s dexterity in storytelling is that this tale could have happened nearly anywhere, simultaneously being particularly African, further adding to her mastery of fluently combining the unlikely. Set in 1953, it also is a timeless tale, evocative, magical as its spirit, like those within, wisping in and out of environments, maintaining an absolute embrace of our senses while setting us completely free to imagine.

About the author …

Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. As well as Monkey’s Wedding, she is the author of the memoir, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press. At the moment, she’s working on finishing another novel, Mine Dances, the sequel to Monkey’s Wedding. She lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, with whom she fights for space in her bed. When she’s not writing, she’s at the gym or hiking the hills behind her home.

Readers can keep up with the author at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

Monkey’s Wedding may be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Author image courtesy Rossandra White

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The author provided a copy of Monkey’s Wedding in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

by Rossandra White

Winner of Feathered Quill’s Silver Award for Memoir

IndieFab Finalist in Foreward Reviews’ 2014 Book of the Year Award

Beverly Hills Book Award Finalist 

Someone once told me that releasing a first book is akin to hanging one’s soul on a meat hook in a display window for all to see (something like that), and I had to admit that was a pretty good assessment. So when I first received Rossandra White’s debut work, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, I remember thinking it was rather brave of an indie author to release a memoir as her first book.

But White carries her own in this fantastic tale that opens to the morning rhythm of a battered relationship, related in a wry tone that immediately grabs the reader with its spirit, honesty and affection. She likes when she has her semi-estranged husband’s company in the morning and the dogs Sweetpea and Jake’s loveable antics are on display, though the couple’s opposing perspectives continue to drive them apart.

Then, just like that, she comes home from work that evening to a note that reads: “Gone to Mexico. Adios.” But it’s happened before. She isn’t shocked. What gets her is the non-conversations they have as she tries to understand.

 “Okay, so are you finally going to tell me what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you keep doing this?”

“Doing what?”

 And so the author brings us on a trip down memory lane via stories set in Laguna Beach and her native South Africa, acquainting us to her past experiences with so many of those who have been important parts of her life, including her husband. She tells it like it is, accepting blame as well as assigning. Her style is spare, words economical, yet they are powerfully packed with emotion and layers of element that beckon us to follow her, then wollop with detail that springs up seemingly from nowhere.

Within minutes the three of us were walking down our rustic dead-end street toward Laguna Canyon Road and the beach, the dogs trailing their leashes. I had to pass Larry’s green van, dubbed the “Love Cage,” parked in the vacant lot next door, a forlorn sight without the battered VW beside it. That van was where we first made love. It was our motel on wheels for a trip up to Northern California ten years earlier to reunite with his two youngest adult daughters, missing for seventeen years after his ex-wife kidnapped them.

Of course, this suddenness reflects many of White’s own experiences, which she deftly analyzes, looking for clues pointing toward the reasoning behind different events, and succinctly illuminating what she finds. In this manner she transports us through episodes, including with her mentally and physically handicapped brother, Garth, back in South Africa and her beloved pets, one of whom, Sweetpea, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The book’s compact size is a testament to White’s skill in storytelling, which for some other authors takes a much larger space to do. And it isn’t only economy, but also how she navigates two parallel threads that run linearly until they meet, also representing a time when she herself made the necessary choices regarding addressing the issues once and for all, including her own role within them.

White’s honesty is searing, but the compassion inherent within—from the author but also others, including her husband—and her writing style brings readers into the story as we journey through the years from childhood and miles of South Africa to California. We are so connected with her telling that we shudder or rejoice at her triumphs, embarrassments, fears and achievements, even smaller ones that reflect her coming into her own.

The contradiction reflected in White’s title—the holding fast while still letting go—is a state of affairs the author lives with and we see through most of the work: conversations that say nothing, living apart in the same house, attention weighted with neglect. This plays out in other ways as well, such as her own dedication across thousands of miles, and as she begins to recognize a great deal more self-sufficiency in those she is tasked with caring for, the bearers of whom provide her, in their own unique ways, with a sort of comfort in return.

It is telling to say that the day I received the book in the mail I read five chapters on the way home. The compelling narrative finds in readers a little bit of who each of us are as we seek out our own paths. White subtly deconstructs the past, her journey laden with frankness and humor as her language wraps around us, settling in comfortably in its ability to mirror our own experiences, at the same time being very much her own story. Punctuated with photos giving glimpses into her childhood, as well as matching stories throughout the book, Loveyoubye is a story of growth and forgiveness, an examination of the meaning of love and how to care for one’s self as well as others. Poignant, heart-rending, sweet and funny, White’s dexterous vision and storytelling strength brings together and reconciles opposing worlds, a union that comes with a cost, but one she brilliantly reveals without regret.

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About the author…

Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. She is the author of the memoir Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press, and two, as yet, unpublished novels, Monkey’s Wedding and Mine Dances, set in Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.

whiteShe lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, where she writes and blogs about the wild old days of her childhood in Africa as well as the wild new days of her life in America.

Readers can keep up with the author at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

Loveyoubye may be purchased at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

Added notation: Monkey’s Wedding, set in 1950s Zimbabwe, is now available at Kindle and IngramSpark.

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Author image courtesy Rossandra White

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The author provided a copy of Loveyoubye in exchange for an honest review. 

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Big Cats: How It Was With Dooms (Duma) (Book and DVD Review)

How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa

by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft

Duma 

Alexander Michaeltos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davies and Campbell Scott

See also links at bottom 

[Book cover image to be replaced]

How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa relates the story of Dooms, an orphaned cheetah, as told by his young friend, Xan, born after the big cat had already been living with the Hopcrafts on their Kenyan game ranch. Initiated as a scrapbook put together by seven-year-old Xan and his wildlife photographer mother, Carol, following the death of their beloved friend, How It Was With Dooms was born.

Featuring Xan’s drawings and Carol’s photos, the essays and images journey readers through the years with the family, background provided along the way.

Beginning with “About How Dooms Came to Live With Us,” our first glimpse into the family’s surroundings is a photo of the Hopcrafts’ marula-roofed (papyrus) house, linking later to memories of a playful if perhaps mischievous Dooms and one of his favorite exploits: scrambling across the roof despite the damage his sharp claws can do to it. After a night of hearing the cheetah scramble over the guest roof, one set of visitors marvel, “Wasn’t that a nice rain we had last night?”

Hopcraft gives readers information about cheetahs in general, linking it, too, to details about Dooms’s life and why they care for him in the particular ways they do, such as keeping him away from worms and bugs in the grass owing to the lack of antibodies in the cow’s milk they give him. Playtime, like that of human children, also teaches Dooms how his world works and helps him respond to it appropriately. Guarding a soccer ball is enabled by his cheetah brand of claws which, unlike those of other big cats, do not retract and therefore act like cleats that supply cheetah with greater traction when running. Chasing and playing with the dogs goes towards learning about hunting, which he eventually does begin to do on his own.

Along the way the author–it is Xan’s voice telling the story–provides for readers more intimate details about Dooms and his personality: his willingness to respect but demand for same in return; his fierce hatred of the family cats and intense dislike of water; killing oversize snakes and running away from the ranch. The drawings complement the photos perfectly, in size, placement and study, and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft’s photographs bring us so close to the subjects we feel almost as if we are there. One larger photo, spread over facing pages shows Xan and Dooms walking off, the grasses spread out in front of them, their companionship bonding them together.

Unfortunately, Duma does become ill and endures a difficult car ride to Nairobi for X-rays and a possible operation. Though the family had tried everything they could to help the cheetah recover, “Death came to the door and stole Dooms.” Accompanying that page is a drawing by Xan showing the trees outside, huddled together, perhaps comforting one another as the skies pour tears over them. It is about six months later the family, after having felt as if the cheetah’s restless spirit had been with them all along, finds a way to ease Dooms’s soul and their own mourning.

In 2005 a movie based upon the book was released.

The two biggest surprises I happened upon after watching the movie (and my subsequent reading of the book) were that, one: The movie is absolutely nothing like the book. Certainly, Davies’s character makes a lot of photos, suggesting she is a photographer by trade, given her devotion to it, and Duma (as Dooms is called in the film) does walk across the piano keys as a baby. Xan, however, is 12 before Duma is found in South Africa, where they live, his father dies in the movie and the boy and his cheetah set off on an adventure that never occurs in Hopcraft’s book. While aware that all movie adaptations are different to the books they are based upon, I was slightly in awe of the gulf between the reality of Hopcraft’s experiences and the story as told on the silver screen.

Two: the movie was a commercial failure.

I am no filmmaker, but I do know what I like and none of these details above put me off the movie. I mention them because perhaps what I really am in awe of is how almost from scratch the writers, Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, really began. Also, while it may betray my naiveté when it comes to move making, I remain unsure how this movie could debut as miserably as it did. According to Wikipedia it took a rave review in Variety for Warner Brothers to re-consider its previous decision not to release in the United States; the film eventually opened as a limited release, however, and that may answer my dismay about what went wrong.

This is a movie that needs to be seen.

Filmed in South Africa (with parts in neighboring, landlocked Botswana) the story opens with Xan (Michaeletos) and his father, Peter (Scott), nearly running over a cheetah cub whose mother has been killed by a lion shortly before he crawled through a hole in the fence surrounding the protective reserve. Knowing the critter really has nowhere else to go, they take him home where Xan’s mother, Kristin (Davies), muses, “Glad I’m not his mum; I’d be heartbroken to lose him.” They decide to name him with the Swahili word for “cheetah”: Duma.

As in the book the family embarks on a campaign to help Duma learn to be a wild cheetah as opposed to an orphaned one. They accomplish this with such techniques as racing in Peter’s motorcycle, parallel to the cheetah’s running path, Xan riding in the sidecar. This is a splendid moment for viewers, especially those who may be unfamiliar with the cheetah’s feat of acceleration: the motorcycle is simply no match for a cheetah who, aerodynamically built for speed, can go from standing to sixty MPH in three seconds, reaching top speed of 75 MPH.

Peter and Xan sketch out a weekend trip designed to release the cheetah to the wild, as he is getting older and the window for him to be able to accomplish the acclimation will soon close forever. Though the boy does not wish to lose his beloved friend, his father reminds him, “His wildness is something he knows without even knowing it. It’s in his blood, in his bones, like a memory. Duma has to live the life he was born to or he’ll never be fully alive.” If the opening is missed, he will likely have to remain in captivity, a choice father and son consider as not an option.

These plans are thrown into disarray, however, when Peter falls ill and dies, and Kristin is forced to lease the farm and move the family to Johannesburg where she can work. Xan takes well neither to the shift nor his new school; as for Duma, who temporarily stays in the apartment of Auntie Gwen (who is terrified of him), well, it just doesn’t work out. He makes his way to the street and Xan’s school, causing a ruckus that shuts the school down; subsequently Xan takes matters in to his own hands.

The movie moves at a semi-fast clip, though there are moments when viewers can see the built-in passages of time containing character introspection and changes affecting how they respond to their circumstances. Shortly before shifting to the city, Xan is seen to be sitting in the long grass, staring off into space. He is still only 12, but his appearance is of a boy who has been forced to grow much in just a few days, and the weight of it shows in his countenance. At his new school, however, his ill-fitting uniform (new for him, as he’d been home-schooled) side part and wide-eyed affectation give him a vulnerable aura, and indeed he is bullied by some other boys.

When boy and cheetah meet up they escape an immediate danger but also a long-term one, for there are officials and weapons that threaten their bond. They won’t necessarily kill the cheetah, but they would take him away from Xan, and so the pair run away.

The music (playing in the video above) is another great feature of the movie, though why it isn’t more widely available baffles me. This may again reveal my own inexperience re: the movie and music industry, but with all the other CDs of African music circulating, it remains a mystery why this one seems so scarce.

To the tune of “Kaboyi Kaboyi” Xan and Duma embark on their adventure, taking off in Peter’s motorcycle, this time with Duma squarely in the sidecar. Eventually they must stop and it is here they meet up with Ripkuna (Walker), a drifter Xan doesn’t quite trust but agrees to pair up with in order to carry out the plan he had outlined with his father, that of returning Duma to the wild. Learning of his new partner’s plan, Rip is shocked because Xan appears unintelligent enough to fear the danger he faces.

“So you plan to cross the Okavango?”
“Yeah. So?”
“‘So’. [Sardonic laugh.] That is a place of many teeth, my friend. It is a place to die.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Be smart. Be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Stupid boy. [Walks off, exasperated.] You know nothing. You know nothing.”

Xan does contemplate frequently on his mother who, unbeknownst to him has organized a search, and fears she hates him for leaving her. Rip tells him the traditional Zulu story of how the cheetah get their distinctive tear stains marked onto their faces, traced back to the one heartbroken cheetah mother who has lost her precious cub. “Her face, stained forever, from her crying.” Rip confides in Xan some of his own story and his own people, and we are left to contemplate the idea of connections and loss, and the appeals to self and others in order to reconcile the two.

It is difficult to say which half of the movie is the more appealing because despite the differences, both bring out that ultimately the story of Xan and Duma, which also is the story of many others, is about connections that continue to exist even when separation occurs or someone suffers a loss. It is also about relationships that embody these ideals, and how they occur every day in events routine as well as extraordinary. Duma’s loss has connected Xan to Ripkuna, who has also suffered. Xan embarks on a road following his loss, which in turn re-creates connections in a place and amongst people he never might have crossed paths with otherwise.

The severed ends of these links may or may not ever re-connect at various points, but humans and animals alike instinctively value and seek them, as if they were, as Peter says earlier in the film of Duma, in the blood and bones, “like a memory.” Wound amongst these connections also is the understanding that friendships created along the way aid in the establishment or re-connection of links–or the awareness that the bond never went away at all. This is repeated through the film, oftentimes hidden, as they can be in life.

“There are things you know without knowing. For me it was my dad. Everything he was, everything he believed in is now part of me. I was taking Duma home, but he took me somewhere too. . . That’s how it was with me and Duma.”

Conservation Fund: Cheetah Fact Sheet and How You Can Help

International Society for Endangered Cats: The Asiatic Cheetah

This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.

Note: This post title was updated to reflect its inclusion in the “Big Cats” series.