Out of Africa – Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)

Book # 614

REVIEWER: Kara


OOAOut of Africa is a memoir of the author’s 17 years living on and running a coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. She describes animals, plants and scenery, the “Natives” who work for her, and various events that happen while she’s there. Highlights include all-night dances the locals host, shooting lions, flying over the land with pilot friends, and trying to protect the crops from grasshoppers and droughts.

As far as the author’s language and writing style, this is a beautiful book that does an excellent job of painting a picture of a coffee plantation in Africa in the early 20th century. The author has a keen eye for detail, a knack for description, and an obviously very deep love for her subject. All this is why we still read this book 85+ years after its publication. And it’s worth a read!

However, it IS written by a white person who went to Africa in the early 20th century as a colonist. In order to keep her farm running, she employs the local “Natives” who are allowed to remain living near the farm so long as they work (without pay) for the author 180 days out of the year. This is just one element of the colonist’s mentality that pervades the book. It very much dampened my enthusiasm.

For the era, it may be that the author had a pretty liberal attitude towards the African people. She is, after all, a kind and benevolent employer; she helps those who work for her with food and medical attention, and has an attitude that ranges from wary tolerance to authentic appreciation when it comes to their culture. She also professes to like them:

“As for me, from my first weeks in Africa, I had felt a great affection for the Natives. It was a strong feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.”

But from where I sit here in the early 21st century, her writing about the people of Kenya is cringe-worthy over and over again. I got a real sense that she subscribed to the “noble savage” mentality. Additionally, she constantly compares the “Natives” to animals, and I mean CONSTANTLY. To be fair, she also occasionally compares a white person to an animal, but with the Natives, it’s disturbingly incessant. Here’s a quotation that sort of encompasses both of these aspects of her attitude toward Africans:

“Sometimes on a Safari, or on the farm, in a moment of extreme tension, I have met the eyes of my Native companions, and have felt that we were at a great distance from one another, and that they were wondering at my apprehension of our risk. It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. This assurance, this art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you.”

The author is at her best when she’s describing the beauty of the land or a deeply personal experience and the feelings that these things give her. For example, on the glorious activity of flying in a plane above her plantation she writes:

“It is a sad hardship and slavery to people who live in towns, that in all their movements they know of one dimension only; they walk along the line as if they were led on a string. The transition from the line to the plane into the two dimensions, when you wander across a field or through a wood, is a splendid liberation… but in the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.”

The beauty and euphoria of passages like this one make Out of Africa worth a quick read. If you do dive in, be prepared to endure much that is written with the narrow vision of a white colonist. 

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