Review of Wild Life by Keena Roberts
Roberts reflects upon her identity and place in the world in a raw and genuine way that I found gripping.
Keena Roberts grew up splitting her time between a primate research camp in Botswana, where she felt at home, and an elite Philadelphia girls' school, where she did not.
In Philadelphia, she navigated the social hierarchy and her preppy classmates' cruelties and curiosities. In Africa, she spent months sleeping in a tent, cooking over a campfire, carrying out tasks essential to her family's safety and existence, and remaining ever-vigilant about giving most creatures as wide a berth as possible. She was comfortable among the baboons her parents spent years studying, and she was fascinated by the other creatures living nearby. Yet the necessary vigilance required to survive in the bush was so ingrained, years later she instinctively scanned back and forth for danger as she walked--even on city sidewalks. Elephants trundled through camp, tearing down trees and structures; a nearby buffalo herd always carried a threat of stampede and trampling--plus they attracted lions; the lions themselves were stealthy, deadly, and lightning quick; and the dumb but treacherous hippos living along the river not infrequently bit and sunk boats and killed people.
Wild Life's subtitle, Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs, felt whimsical and light. But Roberts's memoir doesn't merely explore her culture shock, as interesting as that is. She reflects upon her identity in a raw and genuine way that I found gripping. Her disparate life experiences ultimately lead her to think deeply about her place in the world, her responsibility to humans and animals, and how she might better the lives of others.
For years Roberts said affectionately and with confidence that Botswana was "home," but factors eventually lead her to grapple uncomfortably with this claim. When the AIDS crisis decimates the Botswanan population; farming and development begin to push animals into new areas and force troubling contact with humans; and circumstances highlight the stark contrast between her family's own great privilege and the limited opportunities of most Botswanans, Roberts has a series of reckonings that profoundly change her life.
Her parents' primatology research is touched upon and is fascinating (my husband got to hear about this at more length than he may have been counting on). Roberts's desire for self-sufficiency and her powerful instincts, even as a young girl, are captivating and interesting, especially alongside her social naivete. And I felt privileged to read as her convictions led her toward a life path of service and life-changing work.
What did you think?
This memoir was more than I'd hoped for. I love a peek at wildlife and living in the wild, and I adored reading Roberts's account of her journey from acting in a supporting role for her parents' research to discovering her own challenging, meaningful, and important career and calling.
I first mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Memoirs I'm Reading Now, 10/7/20 Edition.