Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
An African Childhood
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?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
321 pages; ISBN 9781588360496
Title: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
Author: Alexandra Fuller
Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“We might shoot you.”
“Okay.” As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”
So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn’t armed. “Van! Van, hey!” I hiss across the room until she wakes up. And then Van has to light a candle and escort me to the loo, where I pee sleepily into the flickering yellow light and Van keeps the candle high, looking for snakes and scorpions and baboon spiders.
Mum won’t kill snakes because she says they help to keep the rats down (but she rescued a nest of baby mice from the barns and left them to grow in my cupboard, where they ate holes in the family’s winter jerseys). Mum won’t kill scorpions either; she catches them and lets them go free in the pool and Vanessa and I have to rake the pool before we can swim. We fling the scorps as far as we can across the brown and withering lawn, chase the ducks and geese out, and then lower ourselves gingerly into the pool, whose sides wave green and long and soft and grasping with algae. And Mum won’t kill spiders because she says it will bring bad luck.
I tell her, “I’d say we have pretty rotten luck as it is.”
“Then think how much worse it would be if we killed spiders.”
I have my feet off the floor when I pee.
“Hurry up, man.”
“It’s like Victoria Falls.”
“I really had to go.”
I have been holding my pee for a long, long time and staring out the window to try and guess how close it is to morning. Maybe I could hold it until morning. But then I notice that it is the deep-black-sky quiet time of night, which is the halfway time between the sun setting and the sun rising when even the night animals are quiet—as if they, like day animals, take a break in the middle of their work to rest. I can’t hear Vanessa breathing; she has gone into her deep middle-of-the-night silence. Dad is not snoring nor is he shouting in his sleep. The baby is still in her crib but the smell of her is warm and animal with wet nappy. It will be a long time until morning.
Then Vanessa hands me the candle—“You keep boogies for me now”—and she pees.
“See, you had to go, too.”
“Only ’cos you had to.”
There is a hot breeze blowing through the window, the cold sinking night air shifting the heat of the day up. The breeze has trapped midday scents; the prevalent cloying of the leach field, the green soap which has spilled out from the laundry and landed on the patted-down red earth, the wood smoke from the fires that heat our water, the boiled-meat smell of dog food.
We debate the merits of flushing the loo.
“We shouldn’t waste the water.” Even when there isn’t a drought we can’t waste water, just in case one day there is a drought. Anyway, Dad has said, “Steady on with the loo paper, you kids. And don’t flush the bloody loo all the time. The leach field can’t handle it.”
“But that’s two pees in there.”
“So? It’s only pee.”
“Agh sis, man, but it’ll be smelly by tomorrow. And you peed as much as a horse.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“You can flush.”
“I’ll hold the candle.”
Van holds the candle high. I lower the toilet lid, stand on it and lift up the block of hardwood that covers the cistern, and reach down for the chain. Mum has glued a girlie-magazine picture to this block of hardwood: a blond woman in few clothes, with breasts like naked cow udders, and she’s all arched in a strange pouty contortion, like she’s got backache. Which maybe she has, from the weight of the udders. The picture is from Scope magazine.
We aren’t allowed to look at Scope magazine.
“Because we aren’t those sorts of people,” says Mum.
“But we have a picture from Scope magazine on the loo lid.”
“That’s a joke.”
“Oh.” And then, “What sort of joke?”
“Stop twittering on.”
A pause. “What sort of people are we, then?”
“We have breeding,” says Mum firmly.
“Oh.” Like the dairy cows and our special expensive bulls (who are named Humani, Jack, and Bulawayo).
“Which is better than having money,” she adds.
I look at her sideways, considering for a moment. “I’d rather have money than breeding,” I say.
Mum says, “Anyone can have money.” As if it’s something you might pick up from the public toilets in OK Bazaar Grocery Store in Umtali.
“Ja, but we don’t.”
Mum sighs. “I’m trying to read, Bobo.”
“Can you read to me?”
Mum sighs again. “All right,” she says, “just one chapter.” But it is teatime before we look up from The Prince and the Pauper.
The loo gurgles and splutters, and then a torrent of water shakes down, spilling slightly over the bowl.
“Sis, man,” says Vanessa.
You never know what you’re going to get with this loo. Sometimes it refuses to flush at all and other times it’s like this, water on your feet.
I follow Vanessa back to the bedroom. The way candlelight falls, we’re walking into blackness, blinded by the flame of the candle, unable to see our feet. So at the same moment we get the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps, and we abandon ourselves to fear. The candle blows out. We skid into our room and leap for the beds, our feet quickly tucked under us. We’re both panting, feeling foolish, trying to calm our breathing as if we weren’t scared at all.
Vanessa says, “There’s a terrorist under your bed, I can see him.”
“No you can’t, how can you see him? The candle’s out.”
And I start to cry.
“Jeez, I’m only joking.”
I cry harder.
“Shhh, man. You’ll wake up Olivia. You’ll wake up Mum and Dad.”
Which is what I’m trying to do, without being shot. I want everyone awake and noisy to chase away the terrorist-under-my-bed.
“Here,” she says, “you can sleep with Fred if you stop crying.”
So I stop crying and Vanessa pads over the bare cement floor and brings me the cat, fast asleep in a snail-circle on her arms. She puts him on the pillow and I put an arm over the vibrating, purring body. Fred finds my earlobe and starts to suck. He’s always sucked our earlobes. Our hair is sucked into thin, slimy, knotted ropes near the ears.
Mum says, “No wonder you have worms all the time.”