The Flame Trees of Thika – Elspeth Huxley

This book is dedicated to ‘the ghosts who sleep at Thika’ and Elspeth Huxley does an amazing job of bringing them to life.

I’d read other Elspeth Huxley books in the past (The Mottled Lizard, for instance) but they didn’t strike me with the power that this one did. In fact, it might be the best book I’ve ever read on Kenya. Huxley has a talent for writing in an enchantingly understated way on the hardships of settling in what was a very harsh and wild country a century ago. The story runs from what must have been some of the writer’s earliest memories, travelling from Nairobi on an ox-cart with her parents, to pioneer farming at Thika on the southern slopes of Mt Kenya.

She writes lovingly of the Kikuyu and Maasai and with unfaltering honesty about the tough settlers (Brits and Boers) who conquered the land. She writes of a massive wagon train of forty-seven families of Boers struggling through interminable mud to get to their Promised Land on the slopes of Mt Kenya and her words carry much of the heart-in-mouth power even of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: “The women, their small children huddled around them, watched dumbly, fearing the loss of all they possessed in the world, while men, boys, and oxen together called out the utmost effort from every muscle and nerve. Three teams, in all forty-eight oxen, were hitched to each wagon and in the end, almost by force of willpower, they got the wagons over Sugar Vlei.”

Unlike many of Kenya’s celebrated ‘settler’ authors Huxley wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Getting published may have been as tough a battle as was raising that first crop of coffee but this book deserves to be counted among the great classics of Kenya. Huxley had a shining talent that frequently puts more famous Kenyan expat writers – Baroness Blixen (Out of Africa) or Kuki Gallman (I Dreamed of Africa, Night of the Lions) – firmly in the shade of the deepest acacia thicket. Her characters are all portrayed with unforgiving clarity through the penetrative and unusually worldly-wise eyes of an eight year old girl. She touches too on the death of childish innocence: she witnesses a Kikuyu ceremony in which a goat is tortured to death; she’s infected with the colony’s war-fever when the curtain raises on WWI (‘the show’); most poignantly, she gets a sense of inescapable karma when a gut-shot buffalo indirectly brings about the death of a settler during childbirth.

Children often see things with a clarity that escapes their elders. Few writers have captured that ability as touchingly as Elspeth Huxley does in this book.

I had a copy of this book (a classic orange Penguin) on a shelf in Spain for almost a decade and never got around to reading it. It popped back into my mind on a road-trip last year when Narina and I were driving past Thika bound for Tsavo National Park in an old 1972 Toyota jalopy and I decided that I really should get around to reading it. I didn’t mention it to Narina but it must have been in her mind too because, by pure coincidence, just about the time I started reading it in Pamplona she bought me a secondhand copy (the one in the photo) from Karkloof Farmers Market in KwaZulu Natal. Apart from the name ‘Pauliene’ inscribed in the inside cover and an original South Africa price-tag (R24.99 if you must know) there are no clues as to where this mysteriously dog-eared copy had been before. I left it in Howick, South Africa. I hope it has happy travels from there.

 

Kitbaggers book project – travel literature on speed.

Have you ever handled a classic paperback and wondered where it’s been and whose hands it passed through? Do you love the well-handled look of a book that’s obviously seen decades of serious mileage through places you might only have imagined?

This project was conceived long ago through a conversation (in San Jose, Costa Rica) between a group of friends who’d wondered about these same things and thought it would be interesting to try to trace the history of just a few random books that we read on the road.

More than just a review – this is also the story of a single adventurous copy that’s probably still out there touring the world somewhere. Let us know if you find it.

Like to post a review of your own…? Contact us

 

2 Comments

  • Roxanne Reid says:

    Ah, Mark, this has been one of my all-time favourite books for years – definitely the best of the three in the series. I’m prepared to bet you that you’ll read it again in a few years – I know I’ve read it three times and it never lets me down.
    Another super book by her is “Nellie: Letters from Africa” (about Elspeth’s mom). I’ve never forgotten the image of Nellie, aged 80-something, planting lots of trees that would take 20 years or more to mature. I loved the positive thinking.

  • Thanks Roxanne. I’ll certainly look up the book you recommended. We’re in Greece on assignment now but the sequel to Flame Trees of Thika is on my desk at home waiting to be read. I gather it is not quite as good…?
    Talking of positive thinking, we had tea (and raki) the other day with a Greek lady who is now 104 and was so lively and fun-loving that she was a complete inspiration. I hope we’ll write about her for Kitbaggers soon.

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