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Marvelous book about a violent, shameful piece of history!

Leopard At The Door - Jennifer McVeigh

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh, author, Katharine McEwan, narrator

When Rachel Fullsmith was 12 years old, she stayed at home at Kisima, the family farm in Kenya, while her parents went for a visit to England. When a telegram was delivered for her uncle, she ran to find him at his slaughterhouse, although she had been warned not to go there because the African workers were on strike, and it was not safe for her. Once there, she witnessed the brutal murder of a striker, by a British officer, while she was hidden out of sight. When she thought she was able to escape unseen, she ran headlong into Michael, an educated African who had been her teacher. She wondered, what was he doing there at her uncle’s place of business? He asked her if she was going to reveal that he had been present, and she told him that she would not. She didn’t have time to consider his presence or her decision because she soon learned that her mother had died in an accident, and she traveled to England to live under the care of her distant grandparents while she attended boarding school. Essentially, Rachel lost both of her parents at the same time, though her father still lived. The year was 1946.

Rachel did not see her father at all, for the next six years, until she returned home to Kenya in 1952, at age 18, against his advice. He did not think she could be happy there any longer. At home, she soon discovered that Kenya had changed and so had her father, although at first sight, on the surface, everything seemed the same. Almost immediately she learned just how different things really were. Her father was living with another woman, Sara, who seemed to rule him with her feminine wiles. She had a son Harold who now lived in Rachel’s former room. She was now assigned to a guest room on the isolated side of the house. She did not like the dark or the sound of the leopards at night, and being alone was not to her liking, but she decided to make the best of it. She really had little choice.

Sara was very different from Rachel’s mother. She had taken an interest in, and truly cared about helping the Kikuyu, the Africans who worked on the farm in exchange for being able to live there. She had made sure they had shelter, proper clothing and food and even took care of their medical needs. She also helped to educate them. Rachel grew up under the guidance of this considerate woman who loved the farm and was very down to earth. Sara, on the other hand, was an elitist who believed that the Africans were beneath her, not educable and certainly not to be treated as equals. She believed that giving them too much power would be dangerous for the barbarians. This was the typical attitude of the English who lived there and were waited on, hand and foot, by the Africans who were their servants. Sara, like the British officer, Stephen Lockhart, was pompous and haughty, believing in the right to abuse those weaker than they. They used their power to intimidate the Africans which is how they thought it was best to control them and keep them obedient and subservient. Rachel realized that many of the loyal Kikuyu Africans who had worked for her parents were no longer there, and those that were had new rules to follow. They were generally not allowed freedom of movement in the house, their reading materials were removed since Sara believed it would spoil them and give them ideas which would lead to instability and danger, and their needs were neglected by her father. She was confused and uncertain about whether living on the farm was truly the right choice for her future. Yet, she had no place else to go.

Elated to find that her dog Juno was still there, she continued to find solace in familiarity. Jim, her mother’s cook was there and her teacher, Michael was as well, although now, he was her father’s mechanic. They made her feel a bit more welcome, but they were far less comfortable than she was. They were aware of their position as servants. Jim was not allowed to cook in the house. Juno was living in the stable and Sara had confiscated the reading materials of the Africans. It wasn’t long before she and Michael developed a very close and forbidden relationship. Was Rachel’s behavior reckless in such an environment?

Unrest was growing in Africa. The Africans resented the injustice, the lack of wage parity and their substandard conditions. Africa was their land, but the British had laid claim to it. Blacks and whites, Kenyans and British, were treated to far different lifestyles. The Mau Mau uprising began with ceremonies demanding fealty, and they were followed by brutal and cold blooded murders of white farmers, often by their own African workers who had been turned into their enemies by the Mau Maus. Those Africans who refused to follow the Mau Mau were also violently murdered.
The story that develops relies heavily upon the brutal history that led to the independence of Kenya, but it also skillfully introduces social issues that were prevalent during that time: bigotry and injustice, forbidden interracial relationships, elitism, brutality, and the collusion that existed among complicit parties to promote and sustain their privileged lives. They colluded with each other to protect themselves and their own interests. Often, those Europeans who didn’t conform were considered mentally ill and could be consigned to institutions where they were forced to submit to unwanted treatment by “the best” doctors.

The story follows Rachel for about a decade, but it focuses mainly on the period of 1952 and the terrifying period of the Mau Mau Revolution. Adroitly, the author shows the helplessness of the Kikuyu as she contrasts their lot with Rachel’s. Both are affected differently by the demands of the times, but both lack the power to fight back against the ruling authority without some outside support. When the final page is turned, will Rachel find some sense of justice after all of the injustice she has witnessed and withstood? How this plays out is often tragic, but it is also somewhat hopeful and uplifting in the end.

The author has managed to humanize a bleak period of history. After doing some research, l learned that the British were eventually penalized for their discrimination and cruelty to the Africans. In 2013, it was decided that there would be compensation paid to those who suffered unjustly at the hands of the British during the uprising. The book focuses on issues of loyalty, secrets, control, prejudice, and injustice. Using a romantic interlude, which at first put me off, the author illuminated the idea that we are one people regardless of color or status; that love does not deal with or depend on artificial boundaries, that love and respect for each other can overcome many obstacles.

The narrator does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. Rachel feels authentic, although in the story, she seems implausibly naïve, at times. The author’s writing style places the reader, not as an observer, but as a participant in the story. The African landscape, the fear of violence, the discrimination and the cruelty meted out by those in power and those rebelling against that unjust power, all occupy the same space. Horror and beauty lie beside each other in Africa, even today, as exhibited by the behavior of the Boko Haram extremists, Islamic terrorists who continue to conduct an insurgency against the Nigerian government and to conduct heinous acts against the population.