Plot Junkie: Three Weeks in December, Audrey Schulman

Wow. Disability theory, post-colonial theory, gender theory, lions, gorillas… and it’s a really great read, too.

Here’s what happens:

The book starts out with Jeremy Turnkey, a young engineer from Maine, sailing to Mombasa to take a job overseeing the construction of a railroad across British East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Once there, he’s put in charge of thousands of Indian workers and, although dozens of them die every day from work and exposure, he’s still—ostensibly—responsible for their safety. So when a pair of man-eating lions begin terrorizing the area, he goes after them. And while that’s plenty for him to concentrate on, he’s just as preoccupied with thoughts of his guide, Otombe.

Jeremy’s story is interspersed with Max’s story. Max is an American ethnobotonist who is approached by a pharmaceutical company to travel to Rwanda to search out an obscure vine that has five times more beta-blockers than anything else known to science. So she travels to the Congo where she learns that the vine comes from a part of the Virunga National Park where the last family of gorillas in the area lives. The rest of the gorillas—and many of the Rwandans—have been killed by a violent group of Congolese rebels that have been terrorizing the area. As Max follows the gorillas, she finds that her Asperger’s uniquely equips her to read the body language of the gorillas.

And here’s what I thought:

So good. Both stories were very well-done, but I preferred Max’s story. Schulman does such an amazing job of describing how Max negotiates the often-overwhelming sensory bombardment of Asperger’s syndrome. It also gives really fascinating glimpses of how people around Max respond to Max’s Asperger’s—her mother’s difficulty with Max’s inability to give her a hug, the other scientists’ confusion about her abilities, the pharmaceutical company delegates’ foolish discounting of her intelligence.

I thought Shulman presented and addressed Jeremy’s homosexuality and Max’s Asperger’s really deftly. Initially I was put off by the implied equation of homosexuality with a disability—then I kicked myself (god, how the brain still screws up) because in that move I’m reinforcing the privileging of “the neurotypical” over an individual Asperger’s. I’m judging Max as less than, which is absolutely not the point of the book. Her differences make her uniquely able to do her job. Really well done. Actually, Jeremy’s “big secret” doesn’t really have nearly the bearing on the plot that Max’s Asperger’s does. That part is just as much about the effects of colonialism on the enforcers of the system. Really fascinating. There is an obvious, though unstated, connection with Heart of Darkness. As Jeremy watched, and later participated in, the horrible violence of the colonial system, I was reminded of the effects the same system had on Kurtz. And with the man-eating lions in the area—the same area that is being so violently colonized by the British—well, there seems to be a connection between the two.

Highly recommended. This would be great in a classroom—I could see it both in a colonialism-themed course of reading or a disability studies course. Good stuff.

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