Child of Happy Valley

Child of Happy Valley - Juanita Carberry Why would anyone read this book? Well, if you liked Out of Africa or White Mischief, West with the Night, or the Mystery series, Heat of the Sun, my guess is that your curiosity about Africa in the thirties has been tweaked.

Juanita Carberry, (her father changed the spelling of his name, adding an extra "r") spent her childhood in Kenya. Her mother had been a pilot, dying when her Gypsy Moth (and wasn't that a Gypsy Moth in Heat of the Sun?) went into a spin and crashed. Juanita, her name belying her English background, had virtually no relationship with her father, a cold man, who loved beautiful women, but once married to them, took them on long donkey rides in an attempt to abort pregnancies. Juanita doesn't explicitly state it, but the reader suspects that Carberry's rebuffed attempts to hire the ship's doctor to perform an abortion on Juanita's mother when she was on the way back to England to have her child, might have been Juanita herself in the womb.

It must have been something, finding cobras or mambas in the house, having to shake out your shoes to avoid stinging "creepy crawlers" and learning to watch every step while running around barefoot (she attributes her ease of avoiding dog shit on the London sidewalks to early childhood practice observational skills.)

What makes this such a charming read is anecdotes of Africa: the natives who became her surrogate parents, an alternative to her libertine father and stepmother; her encounters with wildlife of all sorts; the beauty of the landscape; and the unusual food (she loved the taste of termites, plucking them from the air as they flew about, but ruining a date later on when at dinner she plucked one flying by and popped it in her mouth without thinking. The fellow never called again. Locusts tasted too much like grass.) Because lockjaw (from tetanus) was so common, children's lower front teeth were knocked out while young so if they did contract lockjaw, they could still get some food.

I remember hearing Leiningen versus the Ants (now available online for free at, a classic story of a Brazilian village being overrun by ants. Carberry tells of safari ( ants that would kill almost anything in their path, usually by asphyxiation as the ants move into any open orifice. Babies left outside unprotected were easy prey. Water was useless as a defense. She describes how they would cross water by walking over the bodies of ants who sacrificed themselves to created a bridge. ( read the Wikipedia entry for more details at Pretty astonishing. The only solution was paraffin and bedposts and chairs and bassinet legs were placed in bowls of paraffin. The natives would use the ants, which have very large pincers as sutures, get the ant to bite across an open wound, then breaking off the body. Is that enough detail? They are considered a great benefit to local African tribes as they kill of large quantities of crop-destroying rodents.

She associated with many of the African servants who were treated little better than slaves and consorting with them was frowned upon. One interesting ritual was circumcision, done to the boys (and girls, but little is explained about that procedure) when they were between the ages of 8 and 16. Since age was measured from the date of circumcision, it was difficult to know the real chronological age of anyone. They were grouped in river, the cold water thought to act as a partial anesthetic and since showing pain was not considered kosher (pun intended) the classic sounds of women ululating helped mask any cries the boys might make.

Juanita had lots of pets, but the best seemed to be her cheetah's, distinguished from leopards by their differently shaped spots (more rosette in shape and on the face) besides being larger and heavier. It was important to know the difference because leopards would often kill humans, especially while chasing dogs, a delicacy, who would run back to their master, providing two for the price of one for the leopard. Cheetahs, on the other hand, were quite docile, the only problem being the dew claw, which, while playing would scratch deeply, often causing infection.

Juanita knew many of the participants in the famous mysteries and events surrounding the White Mischief era. In fact, the killer had confessed to her but she was never brought to trial as a witness because a child's testimony was not considered reliable. It's also the story of her escape from abusive parents, going on to become a world class swimmer.

Charming tale well told.