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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun:  a Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin  (Little Brown, 2006)  (ALA Notable Book, 2008)

I lost my father in 2006 and there are times where I find myself thinking about him.  Part of the reason is that I am turning into him and worry constantly about how not to be him.  Although I have great respect and admiration for my father, there are aspects of him I do not care to repeat.

Funerals are hard on boys who bury their fathers.  Especially if there are issues.

“As he lies there, I think how little I really know of my father.  I have been conditioned by his manner not to pry.  He is emotionally truculent, quick to anger, irascible, rather forbidding really, a remote Victorian paterfamilias.  Mum happily talks about personal stuff.  Dad does not.  He sits aloof from the rest of the family, an inaccessible island with a rocky shoreline.” 

That could be my father, but it is not.  Rather, it is Peter Godwin’s father. 

Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe.  Not the Rhodesia of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:  an African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller.  That was the old way, the way of the “First World” where remnants of colonials tried to retain a white ruled country while Africans struggled to be free of the yoke of history. 

Godwin, as he told us in Mukiwa: a White Boy in Africa (1996), has already showed us his post-Rhodesia upbringing in the new country governed by it President, Robert Mugabe.  In that book we learn almost all we need to compare Fuller’s experience with Godwin’s, except a crucial fact.

Like a good suspense story, before the clue is revealed, Godwin takes the time to balance two things:  the slow deterioration of his formidable father and physician mother contrasted against the equally sad decline of the country into the throes of dictatorship and anarchy.  The irony of this story is that both Godwin’s parents and the country itself fail to understand that while some realities are seen crystal clear, they are both failing to directly confront the most dangerous aspects of their existence and thus are doomed to fail.

The very idea that Jain, Godwin’s oldest sister, fell victim to a violent action one night in Zimbabwe is horrific in its consequences.  It makes one question how low a country can sink until the clue held back by Godwin’s father is finally revealed.

Any narrative non-fiction book discussion group will find this book worthy of discussion.  The issues to be discussed are vast, complicated and challenging.  Here are a few to contemplate. 

“When the bird alights too long upon the tree it will have stones cast upon it.”  This proverb is quoted to Godwin by his mother and it is a perfect echo of the tragic theme in this book.  That issue will make a great hook for any book discussion group. 

Here is another:  how is a person to deal with being a chimera, or “any organism that contains the tissues from at least two genetically distinct parents.” 

Here is a third:  how to deal with a culture that asks, “What is the name of that body of water?” and when told calls it Lake Nyasa, confusing the locals who wonder why the new people called it Lake Lake. 

Lastly, your book group discussion group can deal with a confused and troubled narrator who may repeat the path of his father and says, “I can’t lug the sins of my forebears on my back wherever I go.  I will be just like my father.  I will dispel from my head all the arcane details of this place, the language, the history, the memory.  I will turn my back on the land that made me.” 

Godwin probably knows, as do I, that he will never lose the echo of his father’s voice no matter where he runs. 



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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