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Chickens cures the memoir blues

Account of African childhood offers some parenting tips, too
by: , ‘Twenty Chickens for a Saddle’
Robyn Scott
The Penguin Press

If Americans are familiar with the fascinating African country Botswana, it's likely they're drawing the bulk of their knowledge from Alexander McCall Smith's popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

So it was clever of first-time author Robyn Scott, 27, to print an endorsement from him on the cover of her just-released memoir, 'Twenty Chickens for a Saddle.'

His recommendation should attract plenty of readers to her warm and funny account of growing up in a free-spirited and forward-thinking family living in Botswana from 1987 to 2002 (coincidentally, McCall Smith will read from his latest Precious Ramotswe sleuth story at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing at 7 p.m. Friday, April 25).

Given the recent series of memoir debacles, it's unfortunate that right off the bat the reader isn't given an introduction along the lines of 'This is a memoir to the best of my recollection … dialogue has been recrafted based on the memories of the people involved …' or something like that.

Because with the skeptic's eyes newly sharpened by so many fabulists, the reader can't entirely ignore nagging thoughts of 'This dialogue can't possibly be accurate' and 'Can she really remember what they ate for dinner on such and such day?'

But these unfortunate thoughts are ultimately not-all-that-important distractions from the lively tale of the Scott family.

The father, Keith Scott, is an unwilling doctor who transports his young family from New Zealand to Botswana in the hope of changing careers. He's quickly sucked back into practicing medicine at a series of distant cash-only clinics frequented mainly by residents who rate his abilities a few notches lower than the local witch doctors.

Mother Linda is a broadly educated, enthusiastic thinker and scientist who channels her copious talents and interests into home-schooling her children, Robyn, Damien and Lulu.

As a surprising primer on child-rearing, 'Twenty Chickens' is a great success. The children are given tremendous freedom to roam the bush, learning more about the natural world in a month than most American children pick up in a lifetime. As an early adopter of the sustainable lifestyle, Linda Scott encourages them in an ever-growing variety of enthusiasms while insisting that they pull their own weight.

The title refers to a challenge the parents place on young Robyn, who disarmingly portrays herself as a stubborn, intense, often humorless kid (Scott's memoir is refreshingly free of lengthy personal introspection).

For her birthday, she wants a new saddle for her horse (she's been riding on a makeshift version). Her parents say she has to raise some of the money herself. So together they settle on the idea of producing free-range eggs to market from rescued chickens.

The scenes of this experience are among the most heartwarming in the book. On Robyn's birthday, the chicken coop they've built by hand is finally stocked with year-old chickens saved from certain death in the giant egg factory they've spent their lives in. Once deposited in their new coop they're so shell-shocked they huddle together inside.

Robyn won't budge from the coop, so the family holds her birthday tea outside hours later, all waiting for the chickens to show some signs of life:

Then, midway through our second cup of tea … Lulu put her finger on her lips and pointed toward the hutch.

One of the chickens had stuck her head out.

For a few moments she just peered around cautiously. Then, very slowly, her head bobbing backward and forward like a cartoon chicken, she edged her way about a meter out into the run….

Five minutes later, the last hen had left the hutch and a thick cloud of dust swirled above the run as my twenty chickens scratched at the soil and fluffed their feathers as if a dust bath was something they'd done every day of their lives. They had, of course, never even stood on soil, let alone had the space in which to really scratch.

Unlike so many other contemporary accounts of growing up white in Africa (I recommend 'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' by Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin's 'Mukiwa' and 'When the Crocodile Eats the Sun,' and Wendy Kann's 'Casting With a Fragile Thread'), Scott's memories of Africa, as least as conveyed in this book, are little colored by war, intense racial strife and poverty. In large part, that's because Botswana has long been more stable, peaceful and prosperous than its neighbor Zimbabwe, where those other books are set.

So while Scott does come in contact with some of Southern Africa's tragedies (especially toward the end of the when she begins formal school in Zimbabwe and the AIDS crisis erupts in Botswana with horrifying consequences), this book is much more an account of an unusual, entertaining upbringing than the more expected Africa story written by a white author that asks the question, How do I belong here?

It's the story of an African childhood, but it's a story that former children anywhere can relate to.

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Robyn Scott

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 21

Where: Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651