Leopard At the Door
Author, Jennifer McVeigh
by Jarad Johnson
“Authority is not a substitute for the truth.”
As readers, I feel like we can get a little burnt out at times. I certainly have been burnt out on fiction lately. I’ve been preferring to read more information-based texts, usually on plants or some other nerdy garden topic. I began to feel like I was reading the same story over and over again, perhaps because I was buying the same type of books. My shelves are telling me that I need to branch out. I just felt tired and worn out on what seemed to be repetitive plot points and characters that didn’t resonate with me. Part of the problem is that I’m picky and I go through phases. I also have been steering away from depressing and/or darker things lately. The world is dark enough, and my emotional investment can only go so far. Sometimes when you finish a really good book, you feel exhausted. Its similar to physical exhaustion, or a hangover. Perhaps I should just throw myself into it, but I’d rather escape, and I’m tending to steer towards more comforting or light stories. It’s strange how things shift like that, isn’t it?
Excuse the rambling, but I’ve been thinking about that lately, and I have too much time on my hands. And I have to fill the pages somehow, right?
Anyway, Leopard at the Door is an example of the kind of fiction I’ve been gravitating towards. It’s compelling, the characters are well rounded, and it has some really important messages to portray, but it also didn’t make me want to scream into the void. Thank you, Jennifer McVeigh, for keeping me from staring into the abyss. Furthermore, this book was really well written, and the story was well paced. That’s the key to telling a good story. Pacing and flow. You can tell a great story, but without the right amount of pacing to enthrall the reader and flow to carry you through the story, you may as well have not told it at all. I think that might be the hardest part of writing, actually. I read so many books that are too fast and feel rushed or are too slow and suck the life out of the entire story. Think Charles Dickens – is that controversial? Slow (but not too slow) and steady wins the race.
So, we’re finally ready to talk about the book! That took a minute. At its heart, this is a book about family. It starts when a young woman named Rachel returns to her childhood home in Kenya after six years in England. She left when her mother died, and her return is in part an attempt to reconnect with her mother’s memories. What she finds is an almost completely different house. Her father is courting a new woman, and it seems that all aspects of her mother have been erased. Her mother’s garden is full of weeds, and the warmth and loving presence she brought into the house is now replaced by a cold and staunch behavior. Her family is part of the white settlers in Kenya, and it is clear that the new woman, named Sara, despises the locals, and anyone who isn’t white. She is a hard woman for Rachel to like, with many unpalatable views. Her father often bends to Sara’s wishes in order to keep the peace, and Rachel begins to feel like a stranger, and an unwelcome one at that, in her own home.
I really enjoyed Rachel’s memories of her mother. She seemed like a kind and generous person. She walks through the house, and she remembers her mother in every room. The dining room table, the china cabinet where her mother kept her collection of stones and shells, her medicine box where she treated the native peoples who lived near them, her fishing pole, etc. You can tell that this is the reason she came home, for those memories. But at every turn, its been replaced y the cold and racist presence of Sara. It’s a touching moment when Rachel realizes that all she had of her mother is in two trunks in the barn, and no one’s been out there touch them in a very long time.
This book is set in the 1950’s, and the political climate of Kenya was tense, reaching a boiling point. A few days after Rachel returns home, she begins to hear reports of a secret organization, called Mau Mau, which is intent on liberating Kenya from England. As the book goes on, there are more and more radio reports about Mau Mau slaughtering white settlers. The more I read them, the more I began to wonder how much of it was true. It just seemed so overblown, almost like the news reports were meant to instill fear into the English people living there. The book also depicts what the British army was doing to the native peoples. Torture, brutal murder, and mass arrests. It truly was a police state, and the police there were allowed to run rampant. This is historical fiction, so many of these plot points are based in reality. In the postscript, the book reports that in Kenya during these turbulent times, “only 32 white European settlers died in the Mau Mau rebellion, and there were fewer than two hundred casualties among the British regiments and police who served in Kenya over these years. Yet more than 1,800 African civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau Mau, and many hundred more to have disappeared… rebel losses were greater than those suffered by British security forces.”
The narrative of this part of the book is one of the more interesting parts to me. How the British forces and the news made it seem like Mau Mau was killing hundreds of thousands of British people and gaining traction and on the verge of overthrowing the entire British Empire. Now, it was dangerous, and people died, and I’m sure that was frightening, but overplaying the extent to which that was happening was a political strategy, one that we should all be familiar with. We’ve seen this kind of thing in the States too, throughout history and this year, in fact. Fear mongering is nothing new.
The point of this hyperbole, in my opinion, was an attempt to both demonize all the African people in and make them seem more dangerous than they perhaps were, but more importantly, it was a means of keeping control over Kenya. They used these acts of violence to say that Kenyans had been civilized too quickly and were now regressing to savagery. Twisting the narrative to keep themselves in a position of power (pssst. That should also sound familiar!).
This book really made me think about the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives we are told. I loved the family aspect of the novel and seeing the dynamics there, and also the politics, which are very nuanced, and really make you question whether there’s a, “good” side, and whether or not things are always that simple. And it you begin to wonder about people’s motivations, what makes them do this or that. Desperate people do desperate things.
I finished the book thinking that we should question everything. Question ourselves, and attempt to root out our own biases, and expose it in others. Question those in power and hold them accountable. This is a really interesting and timely book that shows us how we’ve come very far in some ways, and in others we’ve barely made a step.
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He has been a fervent gardener for 6 years and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent the last several years writing about this passion. He believes that nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.