Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman


This is one of those books with two parallel stories and chapters alternating between the stories.  Max is an ethnobotanist with Asperger's who goes to Rwanda looking for a vine that gorillas eat to cure them of heart disease.  While the beta-blocker part is fiction, I gather the Asperger's and gorilla descriptions are accurate.  The other story takes place a hundred years before, December of 1899, when the British are building a railroad from Mombasa to Lake Victoria in their struggle with the Germans over territory in Africa.  The project was stalled at the Tsavo River by two lions who developed a taste for human flesh and terrorized the hundreds of Indians working on the railroad by plucking victims from their tents during the night.  That is historically accurate; the author based much on the book I read years ago, The Lunatic Express:  An Entertainment in Imperialism by Charles Miller.  Schulman tells the story from the point of view of an American engineer whose love of men drove him from his home in Maine.

KevinfromCanada wrote recently of the pitfalls of having multiple story lines; "one of the characters becomes more (or, worse, less) interesting than the others and the book gets choppy".  It's possible you could ascribe that problem to this book, though the anxieties built up by the end of each chapter made me happy to move to another topic in the next chapter.  Personally I found both characters and their stories to be interesting:  I loved revisiting this amazing story of the lions of Tsavo and the story of Max and the gorillas was enlightening and entertaining.  I must admit that when I look back at the highlighted passages in the kindle, it's Max's observations that predominate.

A couple of paragraphs about Max bear quoting:

Her love of plants came from three ways in which they differed from animals and, most importantly, from humans.  First off, on a purely olfactory level, they were more pleasing.  They never farted methane from the inefficiencies of digestion, never reeked of bacterial effluvium if they hadn't showered.  Even when dead and decomposing, plants didn't stink of protein breakdown like rotting meat did.  No, the scent of an old log or a large pile of leaves came from their decaying carbon bonds:  a fragrance sweet and vaguely nostolgic.

And another when Max is in great danger and to her surprise she finds herself praying after a lifetime as a nonbeliever:

The flexibility of the neurotypical mind had always amazed her, its lack of loyalty to any inconvenient fact, its willingness to convince itself of any blatant untruth simply because the untruth would make life easier.

The Tsavo lions story sent me back to that chapter in The Lunatic Express, a wonderful little digression.  Schulman captures the events accurately, fantastical though they seem.  The man who actually killed the lions was a British engineer, Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson, who wrote an account that captivated the public. 

At the end the two stories are loosely tied together.  The bond is a very loose one and truth be told, this is two stories.  I liked them both and didn't mind that they were interspersed with each other.  

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