I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
With these words Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen) begins her account of her 17 years in Africa as a coffee farmer, beginning in 1913. For those who have seen the movie, the book will be a surprise. Instead of a straightforward life story told in a linear way, the book consists of vignettes about persons or events. Dinesen’s husband is barely mentioned, and her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton comes off sounding like a close friendship. What you get instead are stories grouped around certain themes.
For instance, in one early chapter we meet Kamante, a boy with serious ulcers on his leg. Dinesen tries to cure him on her own, but winds up taking him to the local hospital. He stays there for many months until he is healed, and then returns to the farm to become Dinesen’s cook. Another series of stories concerns an accidental shooting on the farm that kills one child and seriously injures another. Dinesen explains that the native African system of justice is not so concerned with meting out punishment, but instead seeks to determine a just recompense for the parents of the dead or injured children. There is also an exciting lion-hunting sequence that I was surprised not to find in the movie. It was so cinematic with Dinesen and Finch-Hatton hunting two lions at night with one gun and a failing lantern.
While Dinesen doesn’t let us see into her most intimate thoughts, she does come across as a strong woman who is ready and able to meet most challenges. She is someone we admire and would like to know. And, more importantly for the reader, she is a good storyteller. In Out of Africa she tells some of her best.