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Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhoodby Robyn Scott
Synopses & Reviews
A glorious new voice on Africa, Robyn Scott's adventures growing up in Botswana in a loving but eccentric family will be one of the season's most talked-about memoirs.
Robyn Scott's story of moving at the age of seven to Botswana with her adventure-seeking parents is described by Alexander McCall Smith as "beautifully written" and "acutely observed." It is that and more. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is an exquisitely rendered portrait of Africa, and of childhood, written by an astonishing new talent.
The Scotts are truly one of the most unusual families you are likely to meet. Robyn's father is a flying doctor who always wanted to be a vet. Her mother believes in holistic medicine and homeschooling. Both are deeply eccentric, and under their affectionate but relaxed guidance, life for the children is a daily adventure of the kind usually confined to storybooks.
Storybooks — or being read to from them — comprise, it turns out, most of their homeschooled education. That, and searching the surrounding bush for animals (poisonous and otherwise) to let loose in their schoolroom. As a result of the absolute freedom of spirit, thought, and movement that they are given, all three children grow into fascinating, if rather eccentric, characters in their own right.
When the family moves to a game farm bordering South Africa, the children become more aware of the darker undercurrents of life in Africa. Here the apartheid mind-set lives on in many of their white South African neighbors. And when at fourteen Robyn begins conventional school in neighboring Zimbabwe, she sees more of the racism initially only glimpsed in Botswana. AIDS also rears its head. Long witnessed by Robyn's father at his village clinics, the existence of the disease is acknowledged by the government too late-only as death, on an unprecedented scale, begins to devastate this peaceful and prosperous African country.
Robyn Scott is an extraordinarily gifted writer and storyteller. Like the witch doctors who compete with her father for patients, she weaves a spell from the start. Her funny, moving memoir, told with clear-eyed unsentimental affection, is about an idyllic childhood and a family's enthusiasm for each other and the world around them, with the essence of Africa — both beautiful and challenging — infusing every page.
"In 1987, Scott's parents ended 'a peripatetic decade' through South Africa, England, and New Zealand, and returned to Botswana with seven-year-old Robyn and her younger siblings. Her mother is a dedicated homeschooler ('Children learn best in unstructured situations, when they don't know they're learning'); her father is a doctor, who often serves 'more than one hundred patients a day.' Grandpa Ivor, a former ace bush pilot, whose later ventures include coffin making, and Grandpa Terry, the personnel manager of a mine, are both great storytellers. Taut and coherent vignettes breathe life into the characters, and Scott's own storytelling skill renders childhood ventures (breaking a horse, falling into a thornbush, distributing Christmas bags) with remarkable immediacy and liveliness. There are snakes, metaphorical and real, though the former rarely intrude upon the child's idyllic world. The real snakes provide moments 'where we never knew what we'd learn, only that it would be interesting.' A venomous puff adder serves as anatomy lesson, and her mother turns 'the death of a juvenile brown house snake into an exhilarating philosophical lecture.' Happy stories are hard to tell, but Scott succeeds in this engaging recreation of a child's Botswana, apolitical and Eden-like. She has no sordid revelations, no shocking surprises — just a raconteur's talent for making any story she tells interesting." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Vigorous recollections of a youth spent among 'profoundly fringy' adults 'in the middle of nowhere'... A colorful, occasionally shocking fish-out-of-water memoir." Kirkus Reviews
"A warm and funny account of growing up in a free-spirited and forward-thinking family living in Botswana." Audrey Van Buskirk, Portland Tribune
"A beautiful and loving portrait." Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe
"Beautifully written and lovingly told." Marcus Mabry, New York Times Book Review
"An enchanting book... eminently readable and deceptively ambitious." John Minervini, Willamette Week
"Such a quietly bravura performance that it is difficult to believe this is Scott's first book." Kate Colquhoun, Daily Telegraph (London)
An exquisitely rendered portrait of an African childhood from an astonishing new talent
When Robyn Scott 's parents decide to uproot their young family from New Zealand and move to a converted cowshed in rural Botswana, life for six-year-old Robyn changed forever. In this wild and new landscape excitement can be found around every corner, and with each misadventure she and her family learn more about the quirks, charms, and challenges of living in one of Africa's most remarkable and beautiful countries as it stands on the brink of an epidemic. When AIDS rears its head, the Scotts witness the early appearances of a disease that will devastate this peaceful and prosperous country. Told with clear-eyed unsentimental affection, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is about a family's enthusiasm for each other and the world around them, with the essence of Africa infusing every page.
About the Author
Born in 1981, Robyn Scott began her formal education at the age of fourteen, when she started boarding school in Zimbabwe. Moving to New Zealand for her undergraduate degree, she studied bioinformatics at the University of Auckland. In 2004, she was awarded a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she took an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise, focused on the pricing of medicines in developing countries. Robyn lives in London, but visits and works regularly in southern Africa.
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