Leopard At the Door
Author: Jennifer McVeigh
Publisher: Putman and Sons, 2017
Genre: novel, historical fiction
Source: Kindle edition
From the first page Ms. McVeigh is able to transport the reader to Kenya of the 1950’s with her lovely prose. We see this country at that time though the eyes of an 18 year-old young woman named Rachel who is returning after six years in England where she has lived since the death of her mother. Grief at the shock of her mother’s death “spun on into a future without her.”
She returns to the farm and her father, the home she has yearned for, to find things changed more than she thought possible. Her father is with a new woman who is intolerant, determined to change Rachel and unused to living in a sparsely populated area in northern Kenya where the nearest farm is 100 miles away. The work to make a farm out of this country is incredible, so different than many readers will be aware of, and it is detailed with full understanding of the realities.
Other factors make Rachel’s adjustment to her old home difficult. There are changes among her childhood friends, and a young black man who was her teacher when she was young has returned to work on the farm after time away in Nairobi. Rachel also has memories of many kinds that occupy her mind and heart. She thinks, “I have come home to find the farm ransacked by a future I don’t understand.” The use of the word ransacked foreshadows future events. It also shows the devastation caused by the loss of workers to build the dams and carry out the multiplicity of tasks necessary to the dairy, sheep raising, land preparation for crops, and so many other aspects of this type of farm.
Dangers mount as the political climate continues to change. The threat to remote farms and to the way of life there grows from the Mau Mau, a secret society uniting Africans and working to overthrow whites through violence. When Rachel left Kenya as a 12 year old, these forces were just awakening with strikes and the like. It was the height of British colonial power in Kenya.
Rachel struggles to find her place at the farm, then she struggles to simply be safe. Her father’s attitudes and the woman who is now in charge of her home see the world differently than she does. This brings her into contact with one man who especially poses a danger to her, and drives her into the company of another whose danger comes from a different direction.
Sadness fills the reader when thinking of white farmers who have invested all in their African farms, some have lived in Africa for generations. They have worked hard. They face constant danger from the environment and in their work, and as many Africans become more involved with Mau Mau violence escalates. When what you have is built on the backs of other humans, eventually the risk of losing what you have won is likely to become very great.
In this tangle of events and beliefs, Rachel is caught between people and actions that pose increasing peril for her as well as her loved ones. This story is a suspenseful read, yet thoughtful. Kenya turned out to be a lesson for all of Africa and the countries who exerted power there in the twentieth century. This novel makes that time very real.
My rating: 4 stars.