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Review: When A Crocodile Eats The Sun

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun is the story of both a family and a place, an ambitious undertaking for any book.  For the most part, author Peter Godwin successfully balances these two complementary stories, resulting in a book that balances between a personal memoir and a well-reported look at the destruction of a country.

Godwin, a journalist who has written for the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, is a white Zimbabwean — a remnant of colonial British settlement of the country. He grew up in Zimbabwe, was forced to fight in the Rhodesian Bush War, then studied both law and international relations in England before becoming a journalist.  When A Crocodile Eats The Sun opens with Godwin burying his father, then goes back in time and follows the arc of his father’s health decline and the secrets that Godwin discovers while caring for his father and mother. 

Godwin parallels this deeply personal memoir with the reporting he did about the destruction of the Republic of Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe. This works quite well, in part because the only reason Godwin was able to return to Zimbabwe to help care for his father is because of his journalism assignments.  It also works because the destruction of Zimbabwe is a horrifying story that I suspect most people are unfamiliar with.

During the time of Godwin’s memoir, white Zimbabwean farmers were being forced off of their farms — the only homes they had ever known — by Mugabe’s land redistribution policy which was designed to return land to black Zimbabweans.  Former soldiers (mainly poor black Zimbabweans) became a violent, homegrown militia that camped out at farms threatening farmers until they were forced to leave everything they’d known or risk being killed.  But once the farms were turned over, their production decreased dramatically which in turn increased unemployment and caused food shortages across the country.  Mugabe’s criminal policies destroyed Zimbabwe, and Godwin’s risky and intelligent reporting brings that crisis to life.

The only part of the memoir I thought was out of place was a series of discoveries Godwin makes about his father’s secret Polish heritage.  He tries to make some connections between the white persecution in Zimbabwe and Jewish persecution during WWII, which I thought distracted from the much more interesting story of what was happening in Zimbabwe.  But, this is a minor criticism and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading this memoir.

The political and social issues Godwin addresses in the book are still happening in Zimbabwe.  On Sunday, the New York Times published a story about white farmers challenging Mugabe’s land redistribution policy.  The article notes,

Since 2000, when Mr. Mugabe began encouraging the violent invasion of the country’s large, white-owned commercial farms — once the country’s largest employers — food production has collapsed, hunger has afflicted millions and the economy has never recovered.

Given the continued relevance of this book, I think it would be a great choice for Eva’s World Citizen Challenge, especially since there is a memoir category.  But I’d also suggest reading another nonfiction book about the history of the conflict in Zimbabwe to complement this book, since the memoir really focuses on a specific historical period and doesn’t do a lot to contextualize Mugabe’s policies in the larger history of the country.

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  • Eva December 28, 2008, 9:08 am

    Have you read House of Stone? It sounds like it addressed similar issues, but all from the journalistic pov. I really loved it!

    P.S.: thanks for the challenge shout-out. The blog should be up and running in a couple of days!

  • Sandra December 28, 2008, 12:36 pm

    A very good review I must say. I will keep this book in mind for the Africa Reading Challenge.

  • Kim L December 28, 2008, 8:01 pm

    Great review! It seems that Mugabe is in the news a lot these days, and I would be interested in reading more about him and what has happened in that country so I can better understand the news.

  • Kim December 28, 2008, 11:52 pm

    Eva: I haven’t read House of Stone, but the description on Amazon sounded cool. I might grab it from the library when I get back from Madison.

    Sandra: Excellent; I think it would be a good challenge book because it’s pretty easy to read and has a lot of relevance to what is happening in Zimbabwe today.

    Kim L: Thank you! Zimbabwe has been in the news a lot, which made discussing this book in my literary journalism class much more interesting. It’s amazing the damage on person can cause when they take power they shouldn’t.

  • Jenners December 29, 2008, 8:07 am

    Very thought-provoking. I pretty much live in a cave when it comes to news, but I often find that books such as these do a better job informing than reading news stories.

  • Kim December 30, 2008, 2:57 pm

    Jenners: I didn’t know a lot about Zimbabwe when I started this book, but I am very interested in it now. When the cholera epidemic broke out a few weeks ago, it was nice to have some background on the country. Godwin is a journalist, so he brings a lot of that sensibility to the book, but also is able to give a larger and more thoughtful picture to what is happening in Zimbabwe.