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English department

Three Weeks in December
by Audrey Schulman

Drawn to explore basic questions of what it means to be human and how then to relate to other species, Audrey Schulman crafts a dual tale of high adventure set in East Africa.

Schulman gives the reader a three-week-long window into the lives of characters Jeremy and Max. The connective tale spans across a century, creating a parallel timespan. Jeremy, a gifted engineer, receives the opportunity in 1899 to supervise the building of the railroad in modern day Kenya. “Onto [the] wilderness would be mapped the straight and exacting lines of money and steel.” He gladly accepts the offer, eager to get away from his hometown and family in Maine. The reader gets a sense that hidden motives support his decision, but it takes getting to know him to learn the secret.

Jeremy doesn’t expect the harsh new reality that awaits him and “[has] much to learn.” A sense of helplessness emerges as “he could identify few of the foods or plants or animals, none of the poisonous snakes. He had no knowledge of the niceties of customs, nor the basics of any of the languages—not those of the African natives or the Indian workers.” Furthermore, perpetual attacks by two stealthy lions terrorize workers. The lions sneak into camp under cover of darkness and devour the men.

The other main character, Max, a multi-racial ethnobotanist, who, although highly intelligent, struggles with even minute social interactions. She identifies herself as an “Aspie.” In other words, she has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. It is evidenced first when she meets the Panoply Pharmaceutical representatives. During negotiations “she was glance only so far as his mouth. A mouth wasn’t as shivery as eyes, not so shocking.” The two men attempt to convince her to take on the task of traveling to Rwanda to learn from a group of mountain gorillas where a life-saving vine grows. Max weighs her options: to accept the offer or “spend her life researching deodorizers.” She chooses the latter and heads off in late 2000 to a research station in Virunga National Park.

In both fictional stories, the echoes of history ring true with fact. When Max arrives at the Rwandan preserve and begins working with the gorillas, she gains a new perspective on herself. The condition that disabled her in traditional society actually grants her an innate understanding of her new primate peers. This could sound farfetched, but Schulman is a woman of research. In interviews, Schulman supports Max’s character with Dian Fossey. Fossey worked with guerillas in Virunga National Park in the late 1970’s and did research on the connection. Just like Max, Fossey discovered that the gorillas exhibit traits remarkably similar to developmentally disabled individuals.

Schulman undergirds elements of Jeremy’s character through references to Colonel Jon Henry Patterson, the actual man who built a railway bridge across the Tsavo River in 1898-1899. Not coincidentally there were two lions roaming around the area that killed an estimated 135 people. By referencing the tale, Schulman creates a historical context for the character Jeremy to wrestle with his personal ghosts, which, although removed by an ocean, still haunt him in Africa.

It is on this historical foundation, gathered from the over 70 books she read to write the novel, that Schulman builds the intriguing tale. Each character is rich in personality and history, but at the book’s close there remains a need for further development. This reader feels Schulman attempted to tackle too much and could have strengthened the novel by focusing on only one character.

Schulman is a previously published author, having written three other books. Her most recent, Three Weeks in December, is well written regardless of minute criticism and captivates the reader. It is evident that Schulman knows her stuff after completing extensive research to write the novel and it invites the reader to understand an African region in a new way. Final verdict? It’s worth the read but perhaps not the buy.

If you would like to learn more about Schulman and her books visit her site.