Book Review : The Flame Trees of Thika
Memories of an African Childhood
by Elspeth Huxley
In an open cart Elspeth Huxley set off with her parents to travel to Thika in Kenya. As pioneering settlers, they built a house of grass, ate off a damask cloth spread over packing cases, and discovered—the hard way—the world of the African. With an extraordinary gift for detail and a keen sense of humor, Huxley recalls her childhood on the small farm at a time when Europeans waged their fortunes on a land that was as harsh as it was beautiful. For a young girl, it was a time of adventure and freedom, and Huxley paints an unforgettable portrait of growing up among the Masai and Kikuyu people, discovering both the beauty and the terrors of the jungle, and enduring the rugged realities of the pioneer life.
Adult Point of View
I remember reading The Flame Trees of Thika as a young teen, and being entranced with the world of Africa. Africa seemed like it could have been on a foreign planet to me at the time as I saw the country through Elspeth’s experiences.
Reading this novel the second time was a disappointment. Lettuce, who I remembered as being elegant and beautiful, was actually shallow. I also remember the farm managers as being noble, in fact, these men were petty and dishonest. I feel cheated, and am not just in this feeling, because I remember the people as being good and funny, but it really wasn’t written that way. It is not Huxley’s fault that as I read The Flame Trees as an adult I was discouraged to see the warts of humanity, how she had originally written it.
Elspeth’s writing and observations feel too detailed to be believable that they are her childhood memories without the aid of others’ recollection to make this novel work. In other places the writing is disjointed and I wish it would connect the pieces together. The scenery is still beautiful, Elspeth’s parents remain true to their own quirks and there is little doubt that, despite the hardships, Elspeth loved her time in Africa.
So, even after my comments I have to say, The Flame Trees of Thika does evoke Africa from the past – and there are parts of Africa that would seem the same today. I would love to get to visit the real Africa.