Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir

The ultimate horror, the ultimate tragedy in this world is the needless, senseless death of a child. The opening chapters of LOVE IN THE DRIEST SEASON by Neely Tucker recount dozens of them. The news attests to hundreds of thousands. The effect can be debilitating -- you look at your own children, tossing a ball, watching Scooby-Doo, you project all that they may accomplish with their lives, and wonder, "What did the world miss out on, for lack of a few dollars worth of medicine? An inspiring politician? A brilliant scientist? An artists? A father? A mother? A teacher?"

In a primal, almost simplistic way, you want to help -- do something. So you join "ONE", write Congress, give what amounts to peanuts to your favorite charity, and watch reality chug along it's grim path. Eventually, meaningless compassion can deepen into a feeling of hopelessness, then, into a hardening of all emotions.

This is how we meet Neely Tucker at the beginning of the book. He'd seen children die in Kosovo and hundreds of other "hot spots" around the world, as he reported the news. Then, one day, a tiny hand gripped his finger, and his hardened heart began to melt. This emotional attachment with an abandoned Zimbabwean girl, found by the side of the road, still covered in her mother's blood, ants eating her ear, takes Neely and his wife Vita (and the reader) on an unbelievably epic journey through the dark heart of the AIDS crisis and the re-emergence of one man's soul.

Judging from the adoption world at large (blogs, sites, forums, etc.) LOVE IN THE DRIEST SEASON seems to be the poor cousin to THERE IS NO ME WITHOUT YOU. Without taking anything away from Melissa Faye Green's powerful and pertinent examination of Ethiopia, I'd argue that Neely Tucker's memoir is equally affecting.

Neely is a white man from Mississippi who married a black woman from Detroit, then tried to adopt an African child from post-Colonial Zimbabwe. Issues of race, identity, national origin and adoption weave organically through his narrative -- from the Zimbabweans suspicion of a white man adopting a black girl (for sexual slavery?), to Vita's identification with and alienation from "mother Africa". At times, she is treated apart from her husband, at other times, rejected by the Africans, she feels very "American". Neely's family, who boycotted his marriage to Vita, fiercely love their daughter -- and even reveal family secrets concerning adoption.

Many of these issues have touched my own family, and seeing them refracted in the smaller, more personal moments of this otherwise "big scope" story led me to strongly identify with Neely. His nuanced analysis of his personal history, his loving portrayal of Vita, his honesty about the wear-and-tear their story caused to him, his marriage and his career pulled me through even the starkest chapters.

The thrust of the book, however, is the point/counterpoint of adopting the girl named Chipo, in the face of a country ravaged by AIDS. Adding context to this throughline, we also tag along on Neely's correspondent work. Headlines such as the Rwandan genocide, uprisings in the Congo and the bombing of the embassy in Nairobi all come into focus, allowing readers, perhaps for the first time, to understand the complex political interdependence between all of these troubled post-colonial countries.

Their Kafka-esque nightmare through the Zimbabwean bureaucracy illuminates clearlyand Tpowerfully the full reasons for the AIDS pandemic: the legacy of colonialism, leading to poor, undeveloped countries with large uneducated and impoverished black populations angry and fearful of Western intervention, local sexual mores (including a tradition for "dry sex", a fear of condoms because they "are for prostitutes", a complete unwillingness to admit the disease exists and a system that shuns those who are infected) and, most viciously and tragically, profoundly corrupt and quasi-facist governments which hide and deny the disease for reasons of pure ego and divert healthcare funding into their own purse. The problems are complex, with long histories. In a strange way, the truth does set us free, and the complexity of the problem does leave room for real change. The idea that some of these issues ARE fixable also cracks the door for hope.

In the end, however, life is unfair, and children do die. Cherish the kids we have and honor the memory of those who didn't make it as best we can. It doesn't sound that uplifting, writing it now, but I came away from the book with a better understanding of the world from which our kids come and why that world exists.

A parting note - this is the perfect book for the HUSBANDS out there. His POV and writing style are very guy-friendly. His exploits as a reporter add splashes of action and suspense. Most importantly, Neely's concerns about the adoption and the path he takes to having his heart opened to the idea is very identifiable to men. He struggles openly and honestly with his attempts to balance his marriage, his professional life and the toll of the adoption -- emotionally and financially. The adoption does extract a toll, but in the end, he feels more than recompensed. This book would be a welcome present for all DADS, WAITING DADS or POTENTIAL DADS out there (and might just help tip the scales for RESISTANT COULD-BE DADS as well!)


Anonymous said...

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