See if this sounds familiar to you. You read a couple of teasers posted by other bloggers about a book that sounds really intriguing. Then you see a full review of the book and think, ‘Oh yeah, gotta read that!’ You order the book online because you can’t wait to get it. But as a blogger, you’re trying to post reviews 4 or 5 days a week so you’re trying to read that many books a week, and the book is a really big hard cover book and you think, ‘It’s going to take me at least 3 or 4 days to read that’. And even though you see snatches as you’re opening your lovely new book — I have a habit ever since I was a kid of opening a new book by laying it on its spine and pressing the covers down, then taking a small group of pages at a time first from the front, then from the back and pressing them open using my thumbnail until the pages have all been spread and the spine will never now crack — that REALLY make you want to read it NOW, you set it aside for a time when you can just read all day. Ring a bell?
Well that’s what happened with Leopard at the Door. January 10th of this year — yes, 5 1/2 months ago — I did a First Chapter, First Paragraph and Tuesday Teaser about this book and only just got back to reading the book last week. Couldn’t put it down!! From the very first page, author Jennifer McVeigh paints a broad and vivid picture of the sights and sounds of Mombasa, Kenya of 1952 that her protagonist Rachel Fullsmith has been hungering for ever since her father abandoned her to her grandparents’ guardianship in England six years earlier. Her mother’s death in a car crash just as unrest is fomenting in Kenya, leaves Rachel with unresolved issues and a desperate longing to be reunited with her father, the land she grew up in, and the familiar black faces of those who loved her and her mother. However, her father has not encouraged her to return and when she does, nothing is the same. Her father has a live-in partner, Sara, who has none of the compassion and concern her mother had for the slaves who work the land and tend to the needs of her father’s household and has moved her bedroom to the far end of the hallway and moved her mother’s things to the barn. Even the attitude of the natives has changed as, frustrated with the lack of justice, the Mau Mau movement now seeks independence through extreme violence first against any of their own people who will not swear the oath and join them, then against the British whites who own the land.
There is a constant tension as Rachel tries to find her place amidst the injustice, restrictions, and the precious memories she has of her mother, their cook Samuel, and her young tutor, Michael. She walks a tightrope between fear and a fierce bravery, her only power, a secret she holds from that horrible day the telegram came with the news of her mother’s death — a twelve-year-old, she saw a European officer kill a kaffir union leader at her uncle’s slaughterhouse and while the officer has threatened her, she holds to her secret and will not relinquish the power it gives her. She has three allies as she tries to find her place — a photo-journalist named Nathaniel Logan — a man who has kept “himself just enough apart from people to make his own judgment” — Sara’s son Harold who has been bitten with the photography bug and has taken and developed some powerful photos depicting the violence of both the Mau Mau and the European officers, and her mother’s best friend, Lillian Markham.
This is an extremely compelling story of the escalation of the Mau Mau movement and how it is viewed by this young adult coming of age in the midst of horrific violence, betrayal, and intimidation. The language is rich, the descriptions evocative, and the view of the times real and balanced. The reader struggles with Rachel as she seeks to follow in her mother’s footsteps, caring for their workers’ injuries and illnesses, providing them with cloth for clothing for the children, and treating them with respect against Sara’s objections and her father’s indifference. This is an important story told with historical accuracy and empathy. Totally recommended. * * * * *