DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT :An African Childhood DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
BY: Alexandra Fuller
NOTE: Page numbers are for iPad
The Story opens with a quote: Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight, For mother will be there. – A.P.HERBERT. (an English Humorist). Did this quote change how you perceived what the book would be about or indicate to you that “mother” would be a significant figure in this novel? And if so, what did you think of “mother” and her many situational responses?
Pgs. (1-7) The first page readily sets the scene with the possibility of a mother who will not kill scorpions, spiders or any other such critters but will accidently shoot her children if they scare her in the middle of the night. She warns “By mistake”. Do you remember being afraid in the night?
Pgs. (52-59) What do you think of a set of parents who would take on Africa in such a way to the peril of their children? In the chapter Chimurenga 1974, Fuller describes her understanding of the terrorists who will cut off the ears, lips, and eyelids of little white children while teasing her sister of having “tackie” lips. They also sing ”One hundred little baboons playing on the minefield” to, I believe, the tune of our “99 bottles of beer on the wall”. As if all of the terrorism, road bombs, convoys, and parents with uzis is quite normal…. Fuller makes you even laugh, at times, about the absurdity of their situation. She also remembers her mother telling them, “Be ready to put your heads down, girls.” As if it is all one big adventure…
Pgs. (60-66) The girls learn to strip and clean their parents guns. Bobo even goes with her mother to the Police Reserve station and on pg 63 describes her experience of seeing an actual prisoner for the first time…”I smile and wave, the way some people try and get a reaction from a bored animal at the zoo, to see if anything will happen. The eyes blink shut. The face disappears.”
Pgs (67-71) What did you think of the rescue scene of the dogs from the snake in the kitchen? Fuller has already said her mother is a bad shot…and now she has an uzi on automatic!! Bobo tells her father, “I think she’s a jolly good shot” after reliving just “how wid the snake’s neck was, how it swayed and wove and how its head snapped forward toward the dogs.”
Pgs72-79) Fuller aptly draws many similarities to how they have all adapted to African ways. One such example is when Vanessa is molested by Roly Swift (although Bobo admits to something previously similar done to her by Fanie Vorster) and her parents tell her to not exaggerate. She then describes how Vanessa looks when she stops listening – a poignant paragraph (73) – “Like an African”. It is like they are becoming a greater part of the country. Do you think it similar to anyone in a foreign land or even us in Hawaii? And, although Bobo’s parents claimed the land for the English white, surely don’t you think they recognized it was not truly theirs…ever?
Pg 79 – I found the paragraph about Bubbles, the dog, interesting. He can and does kill baboons. And, after Fuller fully describes the dog, she deadpans, that when the dog returns after days away “There are dead baboons in his wake.”
Pgs. (85 – 93) The chapter titled “Olivia, January 1978 -- Bobo takes full responsibility for Olivia’s death and her mother’s journey into madness. This traumatic experience filters throughout the remainder of the novel. Surely the weight of this installed a dramatic affect on Fuller. It’s amazing she could write with such humor and insight, don’t you think?
Pg. 106 – What did you think of the fully tattooed man, Bright Light, with even his lids tattooed “I’m” and “Dead” and his feet labeled “I’m Tired” and “Me Too”?
Pg. 143 – Zimba dza mabwe. House of stone. Lahaina. Relentless sun or Cruel sun. Every place has a name, every name a meaning. Fuller writes, however, that those who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw stones for fear of ricochet. The first “to go” (on the Little Trek) are the white Afrikaans children once Robert Gabriel Mugabe takes power and then the English Rhodesians. Bob is not removed until she turns 12.
Pg 149 – Fuller states “But all the history of this land (Rhodesia) returns to the ground on which we stand, because all of us (black, white, coloured, Indian, old-timers, newcomers) are fighting for the same thing: tillable….rain-turned-over-fresh….fertile, worm-smelling soil. Land on which to grow tobacco, cattle, cotton, soybeans, sheep, women, children…. Deprive us of the land and you are depriving us of air, water, food, and sex.” Isn’t this how Fuller’s mother begins to accept the fact that they are all “comrades” now and not racial divided, superior/inferior, etc with the new Zimbabwean government?
Fuller describes Africa in many, many ways: the milk the skinny beef cows is “reluctant” (165) and the locked skulls of two fighting impalas (197) “The harder they had pulled to escape from each other, the more intractably stuck they were, until they had fallen exhausted to their knees in an embrace of hatred that had killed them both….” Pg 211 “It doesn’t take an African to tell you that to leave a child in an unmarked grave is asking for trouble…” Fuller’s mother has now lost three with 2 in unmarked graves. Bobo is cognizant of this and relates it to her mother’s decline.
Pg 222 – what did you think of Bobo’s description of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, ie His Excellency of Malawi “People who disagree with His Excellency, the President for Life and ‘Chief of Chiefs,’ are frequently found to be the victims of car crashes (their bodies mysteriously riddle with bullets); or dead in their beds of heart attacks (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets); or the recipients of some not-quite-fresh seafood (their bodies mysteriously riddle with bullets)?
Pgs (229-301) – Now the Malawians are in charge and the Fuller’s are under a watchful, penetrating eye. So much so that the farm they have been hired to tend has been infiltrated with houseboy who is a government spy, Finally they move yet again. This time to Mozambique (Zambia) which for them means they have lived in every country in the former Federation. Here, mother is diagnosed as manic, Vanessa marries twice and bears 4 children the last named Olivia Jane Fuller which Bobo, who has since also married, says of the name “This is not full circle. It’s Life carrying on. It’s the next breath we all take. It’s the choice we make to get on with it.” How much of her parents, do you think, is written in these words? How much of how Bobo looks at life, family, Africa and their moves all around Africa, etc. is in these words?
RANDOM HOUSE (PUBLISHER) Discussion Questions www.RandomHouse.com
1. Fuller compares the smell of Africa to "black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass." She describes "an explosion of day birds . . . a crashing of wings" and "the sound of heat. The grasshoppers and crickets sing and whine. Drying grass crackles. Dogs pant." How effective is the author in drawing the reader into her world with the senses of sound, and smell, and taste? Can you find other examples of her ability to evoke a physical and emotional landscape that pulses with life? What else makes her writing style unique?
2. Given their dangerous surroundings in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia and a long streak of what young Bobo describes as "bad, bad luck," why does the Fuller family remain in Africa?
3. Drawing on specific examples, such as Nicola Fuller's desire to "live in a country where white men still ruled" and the Fuller family's dramatic interactions with African squatters, soldiers, classmates, neighbors, and servants, how would you describe the racial tensions and cultural differences portrayed in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, particularly between black Africans and white Africans?
4. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is rich with humorous scenes and dialogue, such as the visit by two missionaries who are chased away by the family's overfriendly dogs, a bevy of ferocious fleas, and the worst tea they have ever tasted. What other examples of comedy can you recall, and what purpose do you think they serve in this serious memoir?
5. Fuller describes the family's move to Burma Valley as landing them "right [in] the middle, the very birthplace and epicenter, of the civil war in Rhodesia." Do her youthful impressions give a realistic portrait of the violent conflict?
6. The New York Times Book Review described Nicola as "one of the most memorable characters of African memoir." What makes the author's portrait of her mother so vivid? How would you describe Bobo's father?
7. Define the complex relationship between Bobo and Vanessa. How do the two sisters differ in the ways that they relate to their parents?
8. Animals are ever present in the book. How do the Fullers view their domesticated animals, as compared to the wild creatures that populate their world?
9. Of five children born to Nicola Fuller, only two survive. "All people know that in one way or the other the dead must be laid to rest properly," Alexandra Fuller writes. Discuss how her family deals with the devastating loss of Adrian, Olivia, and Richard. Are they successful in laying their ghosts to rest?
10. According to Bobo, "Some Africans believe that if your baby dies, you must bury it far away from your house, with proper magic and incantations and gifts for the gods, so that the baby does not come back." Later, at Devuli Ranch, soon after the narrator and her sister have horrified Thompson, the cook, by disturbing an old gravesite, Bobo's father announces that he is going fishing: "If the fishing is good, we'll stay here and make a go of it. If the fishing is bad, we'll leave." What role does superstition play in this book? Look for examples in the behavior and beliefs of both black and white Africans.
11. Consider Fuller's interactions with black Africans, including her nanny in Rhodesia and the children she plays "boss and boys" with, as well as with Cephas the tracker and, later, the first black African to invite her into his home. Over the course of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, how does the narrator change and grow?
12. By the end of the narrative, how do you think the author feels about Africa? Has the book changed your own perceptions about this part of the world?