This review first ran on 3/23/09. While fantasy is my favorite genre to read, historical fiction is a very close second. Gloria Whelan is the master of compelling historical fiction with strong girls as protagonists. A poignant story, Listening for Lions reminds me a bit of my childhood favorite, A Little Princess.
As I've said before, I often judge a book by it's cover and Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, with it's alluring cover art by the inimitable Brett Helquist (who, I recently learned, reads every book he is asked to create cover art for - and has to like it - before taking on the job) was a book I was drawn to immediately. I am happy to report that the inside of this book is even better than the sublime outside.
Gloria Whelan, winner of the National Book Award in 2000 for Homeless Bird, her story of Koly, an Indian girl who faces an arranged marriage at age thirteen. When her new life as a wife, far from her family turns out to be worse than she could have imagined she takes her future into her own hands. Setting her stories all over the world, Whelan is a master at crafting a compelling story of a young woman's will to control her own fate and Listening for Lions is no exception. With this book, Whelan combines two of my favorite plot elements: an orphaned child and a historical setting. The story begins in 1919 and is is told in the first person by the sensitive and thoughtful thirteen year old, Rachel Sheridan. At the start of the novel Rachel is living in Kenya with her missionary parents, a doctor and teacher, who are ministering to the Kikuyu and Masai tribes. Her descriptions of her home, the land and the native community she is part of illuminate her love of Africa and its people. Her parents are strict but loving and instill her with a deep sense of responsibility and connectedness, perhaps because they were both orphans raised in England and have the mission to thank for their educations and jobs. When the influenza epidemic reaches Tumaini, the mission hospital they run, Dr and Mrs Sheridan minister to the sick but ultimately succumb to the illness, dying within a day of each other and leaving Rachel and orphan with no living relatives, only Kanoro, a Kikuyu, who watched over Rachel when she was small.
Living on a sisal plantation nearby are the Pritchards, husband, wife and daughter Valerie. Valerie is Rachel's age and has the same long, curling red hair but a very different disposition. Valerie's parents are British expatriates of the snobbish type, never associating with the Sheridans. When Valerie is brought to Tumaini desperately ill, Dr Sheridan cannot save her. Shortly after his death, Rachel pays a visit to the Pritchards so that she can use their phone to call the mission board and report the deaths of her parents. This is where the wheels in Mrs Pritchard's head begin to spin. It is revealed that Valerie was to travel to England to meet her aging and ailing grandfather for the first time ever and secure the Pritchards a place in his will. As the story unfolds the extent of the Pritchard's lies and larcey are revealed, but not before Rachel has been tricked and manipulated into impersonating Valerie and traveling to England for the first time herself.
Afraid that the deception will be revealed and bring about Grandfather Pritchard's death, Rachel does as the Pritchard's instruct. However, so homesick for Africa, she cannot resist speaking of her friend "Rachel" and her experiences at Tumaini. Over the course of time she comes to love Grandfather and delights in bird watching for him, taking advantage of his vast library and visiting his tenants, much the way she visited the shambas of the Kikuyu. But that all comes to an end when the Pritchards write that they are coming for a visit as they cannot bear to be separated from their daughter any longer. Knowing that she can not play along with them Rachel finds herself in a very dangerous situation.
But, her story ends well and Grandfather Pritchard and his lawyer, Mr Grumbloch come to her rescue and put an end to the mendacity for good. But this is not the end of Rachel's story. Rachel has the good fortune to meet Mr Grumbloch's sister, Frieda, a free spirit protofeminist who holds salons in her flat which Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Virginia Woolf attend. Knowing that Grandfather Pritchard, being old fashioned, will not see to Rachel's education, Frieda arranges for Rachel to attend a boarding school near Stagsway, Gradfather's estate. Frieda also knows that Rachel has a deep yearning to return to Africa and especially to continue the work of her parents. Book Three of Listening to Lions, the last forty pages, are dedicated to Rachel's experience as she goes through boarding school, attends an all women medical school in London and does her internship at Westminster Hospital amidst grim discrimination. Finally, with the inheritance left to her by Grandfather Pritchard, she is able to fund her return to Africa through the services of the mission society. The last pages of the book are bittersweet. Even though it has only been ten years, much has changed. But, with the help of Kanoro's son, Ngigi, and all that she learned the first ten years of her life, Rachel begins to rebuild the hospital at Tumaini, which is the Swahili word for hope.
Characters like Rachel Sheridan leave me in awe. To have such a sense of determination and direction in this world is a gift, no matter how big or small the contribution to the lives of others that comes from that drive. Whelan's writing exemplifies this strength from start to finish. While Rachel mourns her parents and her country, she never complains. And, while the Pritchards are morally corrupt people, they are never described on the outsize scale that Roald Dahl uses to characterize his evil adults. They remain human, pathetic and self-centered, but realistic to the end. And, while he is definitely a loving character who sees the value in Rachel, Grandfather Pritchard does not coddle her, allowing the story to be about the woman Rachel becomes, not the orphaned, lonely, taken advantage of child she was.
If your reader likes this book I recommend:
Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotsen