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English department

Three Weeks in December
by Audrey Schulman

I was drawn to Three Weeks in December by the cover, which features a close up of a majestic lion with yellow eyes, saturated in midnight blue (Narnia spin-off?). Naturally, I flipped to the back to find out more (Nope, no Narnia), and here, I got my first glimpse of Jeremy and Max—two American outcasts living one hundred years apart in colonial and post-colonial Africa.

The book begins in December of 1899 when Jeremy, a civil engineer, is given the chance to oversee the building of a railroad system that will extend across present day Kenya. Motivated by the desire to help civilize a primitive land and people, just as his Grandpapi once did, as well as the ache to escape a home that can’t see past his sexual orientation, Jeremy eagerly accepts.

Almost as soon as they arrive on the continent, Jeremy’s workers (all Indian and native Africans—he is the only white man), begin contracting various diseases and infections. Though the fatality rate of these sicknesses is startling, taking out almost a quarter of the men, an even more frightening threat soon appears in the form of two man-eating lions. After dark, this ghostly pair sneaks into the camp and silently circles the sleeping workers. Once they’ve snatched their meal, the belated alarm sounds: a witness’s scream as the body is dragged from the tent and into the brush. Jeremy quickly realizes that, as the leader, it will be up to him to protect his workers and kill the beasts. He enlists the help of a local man, Otombe, and the two begin a grueling hunt that will change the way Jeremy perceives himself, the land and the native people.

In the year 2000, Max is a multiracial woman and ethnobotonist sent to work in the Rwandan jungle bordering war-ravaged Congo in search of a vine with powerful medicinal qualities. Just like Jeremy, Max is also an outsider, as she has Asperger’s syndrome. With overwhelming sensory perception, she is unable to look people in the eye and can’t stand to be touched. Schulman writes, “…if she could, she would erase her physical self from the vision of others entirely. Create some sort of stick-figure representation, a generic avatar holding a plant and a microscope.”

In the jungle, Max lives with three other women who are studying the gorillas that live at the base of the mountain. As she observes the primate’s feeding habits, hoping they will lead her to the vine, a bond is formed, and Schulman quickly takes advantage of the chance to introduce conflict. For one, if Max finds the vine, it will likely lead to the ruin of the gorilla’s habitat. If this isn’t tragic enough, as Max’s heightened senses attach the reader to the animals, the merciless Kutu, an army of drugged child-soldiers, is drawing closer to the mountain each day, threatening every living thing in their path. As Max searches and as her connection to the gorillas grows stronger, the encroaching danger forces her to embrace and overcome aspects of her Asperger’s.

While there’s enough plot for Jeremy and Max to each have their own book, the final few lines solidify their relationship, and mysteriously bring resolution for both characters. Schulman’s tone and pace are always in sync, and it is evident that she examined her characters thoroughly—even the lions and gorillas—before piecing them together on paper. Because she knows their minds, she easily gives weight to their actions. In one scene, a mother gorilla feels Max has threatened her baby. Schulman writes, “Then she swiveled and roared her challenge at the entire jungle, daring any of it to hurt her child.”

On a less positive note, there are a painful amount of dream sequences. Schulman seems terrified that the reader will fail to make connections, and refuses to let a symbol be a symbol.

In the Afterword, Schulman mentions that she read seventy books in preparation for writing Three Weeks in December. While I believe the “write what you know” rule is about tapping into emotion, and not at all about recounting the events of one’s life, I struggle (and come up answerless) with Schulman’s authority as a white, heterosexual woman living in North America to write Max and Jeremy’s stories (both of whom are based on real people). Schulman also admits to blending stories from Africa—a contentious move, as the Western perception of this continent is already distorted.

When Max first hears of the Kutu, people in the nearby village speculated that the army had become cannibalistic. Yoko, one of the scientists, explained, “During every war in Africa, it seems someone somewhere starts a rumor. People repeat it and repeat it until it becomes fact. Radio Sidewalk reaches far more listeners than any actual radio broadcast.” Readers would be wise to approach Three Weeks in December in a similar manner. Although it may at times read like the tenth grade history book you wish you’d had, it is important to remember that Schulman’s imagination is the foundation for the plot—not factual events.

Do proceed, but cautiously.