I wrote and scheduled this post before the events in Oklahoma. What a nightmare. My prayers are with the victims and their families.
Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking. And I never meant to go to Africa. I blame it on the weather. It was a wretched day in Paris, grey and gloomy and spitting with rain, when I was summoned to my mother’s suite at the Hotel de Crillon. I had dressed carefully for the occasion, not because Mossy would care–my mother is curiously unfussy about such things. But I knew wearing something chic would make me feel a little better about the ordeal to come. So I put on a divine little Molyneux dress in scarlet silk with a matching cloche, topped it with a clever chinchilla stole and left my suite, boarded the lift and rode up two floors to her rooms.
So begins A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn, a book described to me as a cross between Out of Africa and The Great Gatsby. That description hinges on the book’s setting: Africa, 1923. In reality, it’s closer to Rules of Civility and Out of Africa the movie, although even that is a poor comparison.
Delilah Drummond is a free-spirited American cotton heiress who spends her time living and loving abroad, most recently in Paris, France. She is never without a man or a drink, and as such often finds herself in regrettable circumstances. Following her latest in flagrante delicto, she agrees it would be best if she waited for the publicity to die down at her stepfather’s estate in Africa. (Kenya, to be specific, but more on that in a minute.) Because she is a loose cannon, and because this is 1923, her 29 year-old virgin cousin, Dodo, chaperones her extended stay.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Africa, Delilah meets a pulsing sack of testosterone named J. Ryder White. I have made my position on character names pretty clear, so you can imagine what I thought of the name “J. Ryder (with a y) White” in a book set in British Colonial Africa. He goes by the name Ryder (with a y), so we don’t know what the J. stands for, although I assume it is John or James or Joseph or some similar name that people actually used in 1923.
I have never heard of Deanna Raybourn before this book, but I hear she is the author of a popular Victorian romantic mystery series called Lady Julia Gray. Like the Lady Julia Gray series, A Spear of Summer Grass is historical fiction with strong romantic elements rather than a true romance novel. Raybourn’s Lady Julia Gray fans are a passionate bunch, and many of them do not feel this book can compare to her Victorian series. I’ve gone through a couple of their most common complaints below.
Writing a book set in British Colonial Africa is tricky. And let me start with that, the geography. It’s actually Kenya. The book is set in Kenya, though it’s only mentioned in passing. Africa is a huge continent, and while the characters go on and on about falling in love with Africa, no one other than Ryder has traveled beyond the borders of Kenya.
This seems like something silly to take issue with, but perhaps the cast of jaded and privileged ex-patriots spouting declarations of love is what pushed it from annoyance to grievance. This brings me to the original point. It seems almost impossible to write a book set in British Colonial Africa from a white perspective without glamorizing colonization to some degree. This is the issue most detractors had with this book, and I agree. Raybourn’s treatment of the tribes, the Masai in particular, ran too close to stereotypical with the gentle warrior, the mystical grandfather, and the mute with a limp whose actions spoke louder than words.
The second issue Raybourn fans was with the amorality of Delilah Drummond. She was sexually aggressive, unapologetic about her hedonistic lifestyle, and shallow.
It was scarcely a fortnight later but all the arrangements had been made. Clothes had been ordered, trunks had been packed, papers procured. It sounds simple enough, but there had been endless trips to couturiers and outfitters and bookshops and stuffy offices for tickets and forms and permissions.
On this issue I didn’t agree. I didn’t find her any more amoral than the male characters in other books, or in this one. Funny, no one complained about Ryder sleeping around with most of Africa (remember, he actually left Kenya), but he did. In Delilah’s case, she used her sexuality as a sword and shield following the death of her 1st husband during WWI, a war in which she served as a nurse–hardly the act of someone shallow and selfish. Ryder wagers he will be the first man to bed Delilah in Africa (there’s a pool) and jokingly threatens to “violate” her in the bush (ha! ha! he’s so funny) but barely a peep about amorality from the peanut gallery because (1) he is a virile man and (2) his first wife broke his heart. Boo-hoo.
“I’m sorry you lost your bet,” I told him. “But let that be a lesson to you, Ryder. I’m no man’s foregone conclusion.”
I find it telling that we seek to comfort and tame the men who act out sexually but spurn the women who do the same. I don’t condone promiscuity or adultery, but neither do I condone double standards.
The uniform came back–or at least pieces of it did. Germans blew him to bits during the Battle of the Marne, and I don’t remember much of what happened after that. A black curtain has fallen over that time, and I don’t ever pull it back to look behind. It’s a place I don’t visit in my memories, and it was a long while before I came out of it. When I emerged, I chopped off my hair and hemmed up my skirts and set out to see what I’d been missing in the world. It had been an interesting ride, no doubt about it, but things had gotten a little out of hand to land me with banishment to Africa. I had handled my affairs with style and even a little discretion from time to time. But the world could be a hard place on a girl who was just out for a little fun, and I felt mightily put upon as the train churned into the station at Marseilles.
Men sow wild oats while women are hoes. I don’t buy it, and I applaud Raybourn for allowing Delilah to give as good as she got, for all the good it did her.
Since this post is also a giveaway, I can’t go into as deep a review as I do usually without giving a way major spoilers. Speaking in generalities, I enjoyed the first half better than the second, which had a conflict and mystery the came and left. Delilah’s voice was a scene stealer for me, excellent, really, but obviously not for those mentioned above so it’s a matter of preference. I’m a sucker for women with sharp, witty minds and am in the “try not to judge until you have suffered an unspeakable tragedy” camp. In response to her prudish cousin getting groped in a nightclub:
“Don’t bother,” I told the devil. “She’s English. You won’t find anything but bony disapproval there.”
I have two copies to giveaway to US and Canadian residents 18 years of age and older. In order to win, please leave a comment on this post. I will pick a winner in one week.
[image source: they are all stills from the movie Out of Africa, of course. It has nothing really to do with the book, and the character have little resemblance to those in A Spear of Summer Grass, but all I can say is Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. If you think I’m going to pass up an opportunity to even tangentially include pictures like this in a post, you must be new here. Hello and welcome.]