Lines to Love: A Spear of Summer Grass Edition


“He conjured Africa for me in that book. I could see it all so clearly in my mind’s eye.”

Those are Delilah Drummond’s words about her step-father Nigel’s journal which kept a record of his time in Kenya.  

Oddly enough, those words are pertinent to Deanna Raybourn’s book, from which the quote and the character come; A Spear of Summer Grass conjures Africa: the wildness, the heat, the brutality, and the majesty. It’s all there on the pages and, if you shut your eyes from time to time in the reading of it, it comes to life in the landscape of your imagination. 

That’s what happened to me. (It’s actually what happens to me whenever I read any of her books.) I was transported. As I said in last week’s post, I recently revisited A Spear of Summer Grass and delighted in it so much I wanted to share it with you, dear readers. In fact, I got so excited about this idea, I asked Deanna Raybourn if she would autograph the copy I would be giving away, which she graciously agreed to do. 

So, without further ado, the winner of the autographed A Spear of Summer Grass is Christine Talty.

Congratulations, Christine! (Just drop a line to me at [email protected] with your address and I'll pop your book in the mail.) I hope you enjoy the read as much as I have- and will continue to, as I’m certain, like me, you’ll read it again. It’s such a grand adventure to embark on, whether at the end of summer or in the middle of the frigid climes of winter. 

Last week I hope I gave you a bit of a taste for the way Raybourn has with words. I included some direct quotes from her work- and even juxtaposed their sophistication with that of Cole Porter- see post here. (You know you’re a consummate writer when you can measure snuff to snuff with Porter.) However, when I looked at my copy of A Spear of Summer Grass, I realized there were a wealth of little pink paper tabs marking innumerable passages and lines that I treasure, either for their evocative nature or for the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. So, as is a custom here at Whiskers on Kittens, I have compiled a few of those gems that particularly sparkle for your reading pleasure. 

I will begin with Delilah’s great lover: Africa:

“Africa is a complicated place, Miss Drummond. It’s the most beautiful place on earth and the most dangerous. Don’t forget that.”

“‘Breathe in Africa, child. It’s the most revivifying place I have ever been.’”

“It was the Great Rift Valley, spanning the view from left to right, slashing the surface of the earth in a crater so vast no man could see from one end of it to the other…And there was something more, something old as the rocks. It might have been the smell of the Almighty himself, and I knew there were no words for this place. It was sacred, as no place I had ever been before.”

“Africa was lover, teacher and mentor, and I could not leave him.” (I have to be honest, I am totally singing Toto’s Africa right now!)

And, then, of course, there’s the physical incarnation of the continent for Delilah, Ryder:

I have to start with Delilah’s first impression of him, which I quoted in last week’s post, but it bares repeating:
“He wasn’t a pirate of course, but that’s the first impression I ever had of him and first impressions die hard.”

Raybourn likens Ryder to the land on several occasions, showing why Delilah can not weave a future in Africa without considering him.

“Ryder led the way, and I noticed his walk as he moved through the bush, low-hipped and loose, as if he and the earth belonged to each other.”

Delilah’s cousin, Dodo sums up Ryder, and, by degrees, Africa the best: 
“‘Laugh if you like, but there’s something fine about him. Underneath the wildness, there’s something pure.’”

But Ryder himself can’t seem to differentiate Delilah from the land that is the breath and bone of himself. In one of their conversations, he tells Delilah all the history of a particular leopard lounging out on the savannah. When she asks him how he knows so much about this particular leopard, he tells her he’s been keeping tabs on her for months. Delilah asks him why, to which he replies (speaking metaphorically, of course):

Even when Raybourn is describing very normal things, she adds an elemental, almost primitive quality to them that makes the actions visceral. For example, here’s Delilah’s take on smoking:

“I liked my Sobranies, but I loved a good cigar. It was like French-kissing fire.”

The way Africa, the savage and sensual nature of her/him (depending on whose view you’re taking), effects the characters throughout this novel is one of the things I appreciate about the book. It’s also the reason I chose to announce the winner today. It’s World Indigenous Peoples Day. 

And in honor of World Indigenous Peoples Day, I’ll end with a few references or pieces of wisdom concerning the tribes of Africa (Masai, Kikuyu, Samburu, Bantu, etc.) Raybourn masterfully breathes life into on the page:

When Delilah looks into Gideon- née Ole’s (his Masai name)- hand:

And, I will end with one my favorite parts of the book. Gideon, Masai warrior and friend of Delilah (and Ryder) plays this profound and potent game when he walks alongside his companions in the bush. Many truths are divulged and many secrets revealed in this manner. I’ll just call it: This is the thing that I know. This is my favorite one:

“‘But this is the thing that I know- to live with fear is not to live at all. A man will die every moment he is afraid.’”

A Spear of Summer Grass is chock full of words of wisdom tempered with wit, sophistication, and heart. The people are brittle and sharp and broken, but they are the salt of the earth, the very sort you want to roll up your sleeves alongside of and get in the trenches with. And while some of the characters might hide from their painful pasts, they are also brave and resilient enough to face it when they must. This is the sort of novel you want to read to galvanize the indomitable spirit within yourself. It’s edifying. 

I hope you’re intrigued enough to give A Spear of Summer Grass a place on your To Be Read pile, dear readers. I know, I know. If you’re anything like me, you’ve promised yourself not to add anything to your TBR pile until you’ve read what’s on it already. But, I promise you, this one is totally worth it. 

So, just because I’m curious (and after all those quotes about Africa, I have an hankering), are there any particular books, movies, or music that bring Africa to your mind? Please share. We’re all looking for new books and authors and movies and music to explore after all.