Three Weeks in December
by Audrey Schulman
Schulman’s novel tells parallel stories of Jeremy and Max, two social outcasts, who find themselves in Africa in “outcast” regions, as each contend with what it means to be human while so different from the norm.
Max, a brilliant ethnobotanist and multiracial woman with Asperger’s, lives in the year 2000, and is sent by a pharmaceutical company to Africa in pursuit of a vine that promises a cure to heart disease. This search takes her to the mountains of Rwanda with vine-eating gorillas for which she has a strong affinity, where neighboring Congo is imploding with civil war. Her Asperger’s renders heightened intensity to all of her senses, most peculiarly, her extreme physical and psychological discomfort at being touched by others. Max’s story unfolds as she navigates her way with her condition through the mountains of Rwanda.
Jeremy, a skilled engineer, lives in 1899, and goes to Kenya to lead construction of a British railroad. Following in his grandfather’s pioneering spirit of settling a new and foreign land, “…Africa was clearly the place to be” (29). Although he is a “neurotypical,” as Max would call him, he lives with a secret that isolates him from others as painfully as Max’s Asperger’s isolates her. In search of a life free from the isolation of his hometown, he heads for Africa.
And then man-eating lions appear; and as the foreigner with a gun, it falls to Jeremy to hunt and kill the lions.
The Eastern African setting of this novel piqued simultaneous interest and protectiveness in me. I grew up in Kenya; East Africa was home before Calvin. But my initial thoughts about this novel: she better know what she’s talking about. Enough erroneous portrayals of Africa have been produced in culture—I hoped this wasn’t another.
Comparisons to Andrea Barrett and Barbara Kingsolver are worthy, with Schulman’s biologically rich storytelling set in the savannahs and forests of Kenya and Rwanda. Schulman has a penchant for setting her stories in foreign lands, with her first novel The Cage set among ice caps and polar bears, and another work, Swimming with Jonah set in Indonesia.
In Three Weeks in December, Africa is in the blood of this book: without the African landscape and the back stories of Kenya’s British colonial history, the Rwandan genocide, and Congo’s civil war, there is no story.
But, Schulman carries a tremendous burden to portray these countries accurately. Because Schulman experienced these countries first-hand, her portrayal of Africa may be seriously considered and taken to be accurate, whether they are or not. As far as landscape, Schulman’s descriptions are accurate: rainfalls are torrential, the humidity is as clingy and heavy as a person, coastal mosquitoes are deadly, and the diversity of plant and wildlife is immense and breathtaking.
Setting her characters on the African landscape, Schulman casts Jeremy as a painfully ignorant American charged with leading seven hundred Indian and African workers to build this railroad, thus laying British claim to East Africa. In Jeremy’s narrative, the narrator’s bluntly racist and unaware statements chafe, and the abuses and exploitation of the workers by the colonial powers is provoking. But, this is Schulman’s point—to make the reader aware of the injustice of the entire colonial enterprise.
A particular example is when Jeremy orders a make-shift pyre to unceremoniously burn the bodies of workers dead from malaria, injuries, and water-borne diseases, never mind their religious and burial preferences. However, when his beloved horse Patsy, shipped with him from Maine, dies of African Horse Fever, he orders the men dig a grave, until heavy rains defeat that idea. Eventually, “…Jeremy ordered her remains soaked with kerosene and thrown on the bonfire with the rest of the day’s cadavers. Her ashes would be mixed in with humans’. He did not know if the workers minded. At the moment, he did not care” (142). Such denigrating attitudes and actions toward the Indian and African workers pervade Jeremy’s story and makes it a challenge at first to empathize with him, or any other white person in historic Africa, for that matter. But ultimately, Jeremy’s deep sense of his responsibility toward the workers under his charge redeems him as a protagonist and gets the reader back on his side. He goes after man-eating lions, after all.
In Max’s story, mentions of “Kutu” child soldiers, drugged and forced into violence by rebel warlords, and cannibalism weave their way into her narrative. While child soldiers are a terrible part of Africa’s past and present, Schulman foots the line between truth-telling and legend with her tales of the cannibal rebels.
Although there were reports of cannibal rebels in Congo during the civil war, I am not keen on Schulman’s use of such an atrocious and abominable historical fact to add intrigue to a work of fiction. This indirectly glorifies it—like fictionalizing a soldier’s war diary recording his friends being blown to bits glorifies war. And it furthers “the African as savage” mentality historically and culturally pervasive in the West. I would hope that Schulman does not want readers or others coming away from her novel thinking Congo’s rebels or worse, people, were cannibals. The cannibalistic behaviors do not characterize Congo or its people; but rather a small band of war-smote individuals.
Schulman’s portrayal of Max’s experience in Rwanda focuses on her internal and external experience of this new world. Her struggle to live as “neurotypicals” do and her uncanny relationship with the Aspie-like mountain gorillas make alternating between her story and Jeremy’s engaging. The reader will root for both Jeremy and Max, for they are both underdogs in worlds and circumstances set against them.
Schulman is a gifted writer, and I recommend this book if historical fiction with botany, gorillas, British East Africa during colonialism, lions, and the enduring human spirit told in story form interest you. But, borrow it from your local library rather than purchase it.
Fisher, Max. "A Congo Mother Survives Cannibalism to Save Her Children: Why Her Photo Matters." The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
Three Weeks in December. N.p., 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
By: JOELLA RANAIVOSON