All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Wild Life by Keena Roberts

on January 6, 2020

Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs
Keena Roberts
Grand Central Publishing
2018, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Keena Roberts split her adolescence between the wilds of an island camp in Botswana and the even more treacherous halls of an elite Philadelphia private school. In Africa, she slept in a tent, cooked over a campfire, and lived each day alongside the baboon colony her parents were studying. She could wield a spear as easily as a pencil, and it wasn’t unusual to be chased by lions or elephants on any given day. But for the months of the year when her family lived in the United States, this brave kid from the bush was cowed by the far more treacherous landscape of the preppy, private school social hierarchy.

Most girls Keena’s age didn’t spend their days changing truck tires, baking their own bread, or running from elephants as they tried to do their schoolwork. They also didn’t carve bird whistles from palm nuts or nearly knock themselves unconscious trying to make homemade palm wine. But Keena’s parents were famous primatologists who shuttled her and her sister between Philadelphia and Botswana every six months. Dreamer, reader, and adventurer, she was always far more comfortable avoiding lions and hippopotamuses than she was dealing with spoiled middle-school field hockey players.

In Keena’s funny, tender memoir, Wild Life, Africa bleeds into America and vice versa, each culture amplifying the other. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Wild Life is ultimately the story of a daring but sensitive young girl desperately trying to figure out if there’s any place where she truly fits in.

I love books set anywhere on the continent of Africa, particularly those that revolve around the wildlife sanctuaries, issues with poaching etc. So when I saw this on NetGalley I jumped on it because it sounded really interesting.

Keena Roberts spent her life divided between two locations. Her parents were prominent primatologists who spent large portions of their careers at overseas postings researching baboons and although Keena’s mother returned to the US for her birth, they took Keena back to Africa at quite a young age and she spent a huge portion of her childhood there, firstly in Kenya and then later in Botswana. She was homeschooled or taught herself and also learned a lot about living in a remote location with little in the way of resources and zero luxury. The temperatures were often incredibly oppressive – there was a heatwave that pushed it to 120 and there was almost no way to seek relief. When Keena got older, her parents decided that proper schooling needed to be a part of her life and also they had to both fulfil teaching engagements with their university employer so Keena started school at a Philadelphia private school. The students there didn’t understand her previous life and she didn’t fit in – she spent most of her time living wild and her clothes, hair and everything else was all wrong. She wasn’t interested in what other children were interested in and they didn’t understand the things that interested her.

I’m not particularly brave, so I was pretty fascinated by Keena’s life in Africa, complete with experiences with black mambas, spiders the size of dinner plates, the danger of navigating channels in the Okavango delta in a boat where crocodiles and hippos lurk. For her, it was all normal – as much as walking into the living room and putting the tv on or stepping outside to have a swim in the pool or play on the swings, as I did in my own childhood. It’s when she goes back to Philadelphia that she has trouble – the house doesn’t feel right, so different it is to Africa and her experience coming and going from school means that she doesn’t make many close friends and is often the subject of ridicule and isolation by the other students.

There were parts of this I enjoyed – I don’t like monkeys (or apes, chimpanzees, etc) so I was more interested in the other animals that Keena and her family observed whilst they went about their work in Botswana. Elephants, lions, hippos, etc. I love all of them and reading about them observing them in their natural habitat was really interesting. It was certainly a unique childhood, although also fraught with quite a lot of danger. The book opens with Roberts gleefully recounting the three times she nearly died when she was a baby/toddler and there is also a story in the book where her mother requires her to pilot a boat on her own through rivers where crocodiles and hippos, both of which are known to attack boats and dislodge people from them, inhabit. She’s less than 10 at the time and has her even younger sister with her, which I did find quite disturbing. There’s other rules I guess, when you’re living so remote. Kids grow up quicker and take on more responsibility.

However I did find the book quite circular. Because they spend months in Africa and then return for Keena to go to school, there is a repeat of the same pattern and I did grow a bit bored with this. I know she was treated quite unfairly by her classmates, ostracised and picked on but the stories from when they live in Philadelphia contain pretty much nothing else. Nothing else of her life in America and surely they must’ve done other things? There’s some interesting internal thoughts about how she’s torn between her two places – she’s American, born in America but her formative years were all spent in Africa living a life that is very different to the average American. In America she often feels lost and clueless, but when she returns to Africa it’s like ‘coming home’. But I’m not sure why I didn’t love this – I probably should have, it’s right up my alley, talking about a lot of things that I love to read about. But parts of it were honestly a chore and I could’ve been reading the same thing over and over again, because of the aforementioned pattern it followed. I liked this – but I didn’t connect with it in a way that made it feel meaningful to me, a way where I would remember it as a favourite. It was okay.


Book #1 of 2020

I’m going to count this book towards my participation in the 2020 Non Fiction Challenge hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. It actually applies to quite a few of the categories but my favourite part of it was about the landscape in Botswana and the animals, so I’m going to use it to tick off the Nature category.

1/6 books read for this challenge. There’s potential that I could end up reading books for all 12!

6 responses to “Review: Wild Life by Keena Roberts

  1. I was curious about this title so thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. And congrats on finishing your first book for the challenge

  2. Veronica @ The Burgeoning Bookshelf says:

    She sounds like she has had a fascinating life. The type I like to read about but not live.

    • I’m the same. I’m horrifically terrified of almost everything about her life in Africa, haha. Although she did experience it from a very young age, so it was “normal” for her, she struggled with the American life. But yeah, the idea of being without reliable electricity, running water, doctors, etc….when there are all sorts of things that can kill you (there’s a mamba in her cot with her when she’s not even a year old) is so nerve wracking, I have to just experience it from the safe distance of the other side of the book! Haha

  3. […] All The Books I Can Read was the first to link a review this month, with a book that satisfies the Nature category – Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs by Keena Roberts. Visit her blog to learn what she thought about this memoir by a women who moved between Philadelphia and Botswana every six months as a teen. […]

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    This looks a little like the premise of Mean Girls! Interesting, but too bad it got repetitive.

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