Listening for Lions
LISTENING FOR LIONS, the latest novel by National Book Award winner Gloria Whelan, is the story of Rachel Sheridan, the daughter of English missionaries working with the Kikuyu people in the East African village of Tumaini. Although Rachel is raised in humble surroundings --- a mud brick house with a roof that leaks --- she is happy, helping her father in the hospital and visiting the local people in their shambas. When the influenza epidemic of 1919 reaches Tumaini, however, Rachel's whole life changes. Not only do the Africans flee the village out of fear of the illness, but her own parents are struck down by the disease.
Left without family, Rachel thinks her only option is to approach the mission board in Mombasa, although she knows they will send her to a dismal orphanage in England. Her snooty British neighbors have other ideas. Their only daughter Valerie, scheduled for a visit to England with her estranged --- and wealthy --- grandfather, also died in the flu epidemic. Valerie's parents want Rachel to take her place. "It is only the expectation of Valerie's visit that has kept the dear old man alive," her mother claims. Rachel is astute enough to realize that there may be an underlying motive, but she's also frightened at the prospect of being trapped in the orphanage. With misgivings and a trembling heart, Rachel agrees to do as her neighbors ask, and sets off for England.
LISTENING FOR LIONS is written in a spare, elegant prose that will engage adults and children alike. What could have been a trite undercover identity plot is revealed in such depth and nuance that it never becomes melodramatic or overwhelming. However, Whelan's strength here is her characters, particularly Rachel. Although in some places Rachel seems almost too good to be true, her own self-doubt and recognition of her own weaknesses make her very believable. Whelan's slow, subtle and delightful development of the relationship between Rachel and Valerie's grandfather is masterful. While Rachel grows and changes in England in some unexpected and surprising ways, she never loses the core of that missionary child growing up in the African countryside.
Another thing that Whelan does extremely well is to create a sympathetic yet realistic Western character in a colonial environment. The world has changed tremendously since 1919, and behavior and attitudes that were normal at that time are often morally repugnant to us today. Most authors of historical novels deal with this by giving their main characters 21st century sensibilities, particularly on sensitive topics like women's issues and racial equality. While understandable, it has the effect of making the characters seem unreal. Whelan avoids this trap. Growing up under such unusual circumstances, Rachel's views on controversial topics seem natural, not just something tacked on to make the character more sympathetic.
LISTENING FOR LIONS is a fantastic book, filled with characters who will remain with you long after you've finished the last page. I heartily recommend it.
Reviewed by Paula Jolin on August 1, 2005
Listening for Lions
- Publication Date: August 1, 2005
- Genres: Historical Fiction
- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins
- ISBN-10: 0060581743
- ISBN-13: 9780060581749