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"The Girl Who married a Lion" by Alexander McColl Smith
I picked this book up through bookcrossing I think. I had looked at it a couple of times in the past on Amazon as I do like Alexander McColl Smith's writing but it was described as a children's book so I decided against buying it. As it was free I thought I would give it a try.
Most people will know Alexander McCall Smith for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana and it is through those novels that we have seen his love of Africa. This book is not actually his own creation he has taken traditional African folk tales from Botswana and Zimbabwe and retold them in his words." The Girl Who Married A Lion" is just one of these tales in this book. McCall Smith collected these short legends and folktales which have been orally passed from generation to generation and translated by his Setswana-speaking friends in Botswana.
This is described as a children's book but I would suggest it is for older children as some of the tales are a bit odd and even as an adult I wasn't quite sure what to make of them. There are no illustrations in my version published by Canongate publishers but It does have a lovely forward in the form of a letter from one of the most famous lady detectives in the world, Mma Ramotswe.
Folk tales are often rather strange and you have to sort of suspend belief and look beyond the fact that a girl marries a lion, that a tree grows from a man's head and think what the moral of the tale might be. I have to admit that sometimes I was stumped.
According to Mma Ramotswe she heard these tales from her father's aunt in the village of Mochudi. They make her feel sad as they remind her of her childhood but as she listens or reads more she realizes how lucky she is to be where she is and to have had the life she has enjoyed. She says she will keep this book on her desk and read a tale when she isn't busy and talk about it with Mma Makutsi over a cup of redbush tea.
We know that Alexander McColl Smith writes beautifully as he captures the way African people talk. Once again here he has written the stories as though someone is telling the story. You can imagine yourself sitting under an Amarula tree with an old African man or lady telling you these tales. You can almost smell the charcoal fires and feel the heat of the ground as you sit listening.
Some as I said are quite odd and I am not sure what they are supposed to mean. The story which the book takes its title from is rather sad. A girl marries a man but her brother is sure he is a lion is disguise. All is going well and he is a good husband but he has a strange smell. They decide to put an animal outside the hut and if it gets eaten then the husband must be a lion. The animal gets eaten, they decide he is a lion and send him off with their spears. The girl is sad to lose her husband and then worries that her two sons might also be lions. They test that theory by putting the two boys in a cage saying they want to test to see if it is lion proof. Lions come and the two boys are scared, the lions try to attack them so uncle rushes out and rescue the boys. The boys are obviously not lions as the real lions would have smelled them.
It seems a bit sad to me as the girl was happy and he was a good husband despite being a lion! Maybe it is meant to be sinister; he might be a mobster or criminal but take from it what you will. It is really a very similar story to the Aesop tale "The wolf in sheep's clothing" just with a different slant on it I suppose.
Another strange tale was "Lazy Baboons" which was extremely short. Apparently in the olden days animals could talk and in those day baboons were happy to share the food but not do any work to help. They used to sing a little song about it. The end of the story just says people still talk about the laziness of baboons even though they have lost the ability to sing and the song and tune have been forgotten.
Does this mean that people remember legends or stories or gossip about people well after the original event has long past?
These tales are told to warn children of danger or teach moral lessons while they entertain them. Quite a few of these stories involve very real dangers through mythical or real animals.
"Beware of Friends You Cannot Trust" is where Jackal tricks Hyena and he gets severely beaten for something Jackal has done as well but Jackal had been wise enough to know when to stop so he didn't get "his hand caught in the cookie jar".
Often the stories have a moral and usually the bad or naughty animals or people get their just desserts. They are not stories to be taken at face value you have to think beyond the actual story as to what it is trying to tell you. Animals don't talk nor do they generally live together equally with humans. There are elements of fantasy such as the man who had a tree growing from his head
and the bird which gave milk which was very similar to the goose that laid the golden egg.
None of the stories is long; in fact I think the one from the book title is probably the longest A couple of them are only two short pages long. On the whole I am not a fan of short stories as I tend to find them quite frustrating. Just as you get into a story it ends but in this book it didn't really matter as on the whole as they are not really the sort of story you would get gripped by in my view.
In my view this is not a book I would read from cover to cover. I read about half the stories and got fed up as I like to read a book and become immersed in the story. I read the rest of the stories while I was having breakfast and my husband was reading his "Wisden Cricketer magazine". I could read one or two and then put them down without thinking about what was going to happen next.
I would say this would be a great book for reading to a class of children working on a topic of Africa and then you could pick and choose suitable stories to share with them and then discuss what cautionary tale it might be trying to tell them. I would say you should read the stories yourself first to check whether you think they are suitable for children as some are rather full of deaths and not only of the baddies. Children are of course used to deaths in fairy tales so it may not bother them unduly.
I would say that this is not a book I would buy to read myself. It is interesting as a look at African folk culture but they were not stories that grabbed me. I will be passing my book on as I don't see it being one I would read to my grand children for entertainment. I would describe this book as "interesting" rather than a "must read". If you see it in a sale or charity shop and want to have a quick read then fine but do not pay full price unless you are really interested in African folk stories.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
I've been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith for some years now - his novels are light, gently amusing and always an enjoyable and easy read. He is most famous for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, and his love of Africa. He has also published a collection of African folk tales, The Girl Who Married A Lion; this was originally published in 1989 as The Children of Wax, but has been updated since then and includes tales from Zimbabwe and Botswana.
I've often seen The Girl Who Married a Lion on library shelves, but was never particularly desperate to read it. However, when I spotted it in the recent Kindle book sale for only £1.06, I thought "why not?". The Kindle edition which I purchased was called the Illustrated Children's Edition, but the Kindle edition certainly contains no pictures - although I assume the print version does.
McCall Smith collected these tales from the people of Zimbabwe and Botswana. Like many African cultures, they have a strong oral tradition when it comes to storytelling. These stories, and others like them, would be passed down from generation to generation through spoken storytelling. This oral style is immediately evident in the style that McCall Smith has written the stories - you can imagine them being told aloud by a village elder to teach the children about morality and honesty. The style can seem slightly off when you are aware of it as being written down, but the trick is to immerse yourself in the tales and imagine yourself in Africa, perhaps at sunset beside a fire. That's what I did at any rate!
The stories themselves all have a moral. The people and animals in them who are dishonest or tricky usually get their comeuppance, and so we see that we should not be like this. On the other side of the coin, those who are good and honest and fall victim to those who are less so will usually have the happy ending that they deserve.
Many of the stories feature animals, who talk and work together, and often communicate with humans. While to many of us this may seem an unrealistic (if enjoyable) aspect of the story, there is something very natural about the animals involvement in these African tales. They fit. While I was reading The Girl Who Married a Lion, I did not question the animals roles at all (well, possibly with the exception of the lion who survived having his skin removed by a hare). There are other elements to the stories which would seem unrealistic in another context, such as the tree which dispenses vast quantities of food.
The stories are all very short, some of them only a few Kindle pages long. Sometimes this didn't bother me, but at other times it did. I started to get really into a story, to become invested in its characters future, and then it was finished, which seemed disappointing. However, bearing in mind that these stories are written for children and adults, the length of them would be good for keeping a childs attention.
I will say one word of caution about children reading this though - there is quite a lot of death in these stories, and often of the "good" characters. The deaths are written in a very matter-of-fact style, and are not gory, but young children might find it upsetting.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl Who Married a Lion, it was a short and relaxing read. I found myself transported to Africa, thanks to both the nature of the stories and the style in which McCall Smith has written them. While the length of the book means it is probably not worth full price, it is one to look out for in sales or your local library.