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A Family Memoir

Written by Neely TuckerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Neely Tucker


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 17, 2004
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-8080-9
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype

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In 1997 foreign correspondent Neely Tucker and his wife, Vita, arrived in Zimbabwe. After witnessing the devastating consequences of AIDS and economic disaster on the country’s children, the couple started volunteering at an orphanage where a critically ill infant, abandoned in a field on the day she was born, was trusted to their care. Within weeks, Chipo, the baby girl whose name means “gift,” would come to mean everything to them. Their decision to adopt her, however, would challenge an unspoken social norm: that foreigners should never adopt Zimbabwean children. Against a background of war, terrorism, disease, and unbearable uncertainty about the future, Chipo’s true story emerges as an inspiring testament to the miracles that love—and dogged determination—can sometimes achieve.


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The bureaucrat was not a happy man, and it didn't take long to understand that I was the source of his irritation. Richard Tambadini was a senior officer in Zimbabwe's Department of Immigration Control. In May 1997, in a drab office in a dreary government building known as Liquenda House, he looked over my papers. He was slow, careful of speech, and so disdainful he seldom looked up.

"You have sent your belongings here ahead of yourself," he said, sounding as if he were reading from an indictment. "You presume that we will give you a work permit. You think little black Zimbabwe needs big white American men like you."

He paused and looked out the window at downtown Harare. A car alarm was going off on the street below, the repeated bleating of its horn drifting above the sound of midmorning traffic.

I shifted in my hard-back chair. This was becoming embarrassing. Vita and I had packed up our belongings from our previous posting in Warsaw, Poland, a few weeks earlier. The crate had to be trucked to Gdansk, wait for a ship, then be carried across the Baltic Sea down to Amsterdam, transferred to another cargo ship, then sailed down the coast of Europe, the entire West African coast, around the southern tip of Cape Town, and on to the South African port of Durban. Then it had to be transferred to a rail car and hauled to Zimbabwe. The shipping clerk had said eight weeks at best; perhaps three or four months. My predecessor in Harare had assured me that the Zimbabwean government would issue my work permit as a foreign correspondent long before then.

The crate made it in three weeks.

Now I was in Harare, trying to explain to Tambadini why this unexpected delivery did not constitute an act of ugly American hubris.

"Mr. Tambadini," I said in an attempt to lighten the situation, "I'm five foot seven inches, and I don't think anybody has ever said I tried to act like a big--"

"We have just met, Mr. Tucker, and yet I know your kind very well," he cut me off, looking at his fingernails. "You come from America, a country that disparages black people. You are a rich man. You come here, you see poor little Zimbabwe, where even the people who administer the government are black, and you have assumed that we need you. You think we are so grateful to have you among us that you think we will exempt you from our laws. It is the way of the white man in Africa." His tone had changed to an icy disdain.

"So we have a system for people like you. We impound your goods in customs until you are approved, at the rate of a hundred U.S. dollars per day. If we decide to approve your application--and this could take months--then you will pay us and you may receive your goods. But you will pay us, Mr. Tucker, for your arrogance."

He was making a speech, and I got the idea it wasn't the first time, but I was still disconcerted. His insistence on characterizing a routine transit mix-up as a deliberate racial slight was unsettling, and the idea that I was a rich man might have been amusing in another context. But telling my editors they were about to be fined several thousand dollars was not a prospect I relished. So I took a deep breath and ate humble pie.

"Sir, if my company or I have made assumptions, I am terribly sorry, but they are not the assumptions you say. My paper, the Detroit Free Press, has been here seventeen years, the longest of any American media company. We have been in Zimbabwe since independence, since black Zimbabweans seized control of their own country. When every other American newspaper left to go to South Africa after apartheid, my newspaper stayed here, in a country that is ninety-nine percent black. The city I report for is the most predominantly black metropolis in America. It is seventy-five percent black. The managing editor of my newspaper, the man who sent me here, is a black American. The black lady waiting in the hallway, the one with the dreadlocks and the blue dress, is my wife. If my paper, my predecessor, or I thought it was necessary for me to come here to apply for a work permit months ago, I would have done so. It is unfortunate this shipment has arrived so quickly. But it is not for the reasons you suggest."

Tambadini looked out the window. "Perhaps," he said, and waved a hand, dismissing me. Two days later, the work permit was approved. But I would remember that little encounter in the years ahead, a warning light going off before I even knew to look for one.

The racial confrontation of that morning was more a tired refrain than a new angry incantation for me, for race had been the defining issue of my life. I did not grow up learning of Tambadini's home country, a small nation in southeastern Africa that was then known as Rhodesia, but my homeland in the Deep South was mired in an oddly parallel racial struggle. In the 1960s, when blacks in Zimbabwe were fighting for independence from a white colonial regime, black people in the American South were fighting for their rights. The reaction of white Rhodesians and white southerners, particularly in my home state of Mississippi, was just about the same. For a while, for the few who noticed, the two struggles seemed to play in syncopation.

A year or two before Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith declared in 1965 that whites would rule Rhodesia for one thousand years, George Wallace in Alabama had bellowed: "I draw the line in the dust and I say . . . segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" in his gubernatorial inauguration speech. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Letter from Birmingham Jail" the same year an African nationalist and schoolteacher named Robert Mugabe was jailed in Zimbabwe. When Smith was using the Selous Scouts to terrorize blacks, the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses across Mississippi. One night, they staged cross burnings in sixty-four of Mississippi's eighty-two counties, just to show they ran the place. A man named Byron De La Beckwith shot Medgar Evers in the back; mobs of young white men beat marchers, activists, and the Freedom Riders. In one of the most notorious incidents of the era, Klansmen killed three civil rights workers--"two Jews and a nigger," in local parlance--outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

While Rhodesia was hit with sanctions by the United Nations and became an international pariah, it was Mississippi that most horrified Americans. Nina Simone didn't sing "Georgia Goddam," Anne Moody didn't write Coming of Age in Alabama, and later the movie wasn't called Louisiana Burning. It was we, in rural white Mississippi, who seemed to insist on becoming the South's symbolic heart of darkness.

It was in this season of segregation and despair that I was born in Holmes County, the poorest, most predominantly black county in the poorest, most predominantly black state in America. The land straddled the low-slung hills of central Mississippi and the fertile edge of the Delta, a place where three of every four faces were black, a place so impoverished and forlorn that it sometimes seemed only the soil was rich. Stands of pine trees mixed among the muddy creeks and towering oaks and then the land sloped away, down a kudzu-covered place called Valley Hill, the last incline for more than a hundred miles. The Delta's flat fields stretched into the distance, a vast plain of black dirt and stagnant backwaters that ran all the way to the levee and the broad brown river, the ever-rolling Father of Waters, that gave the state its name. On a slate-gray afternoon in November--rain falling in a steady drizzle on the endless rows of picked-over cotton stalks and the trailers left by the side of the road and the sleepy wooden churches and the graveyards of the faithful and the tin-roofed barns and the shotgun shacks--it was a place that soaked into the marrow of the bones and pooled there, never to leave.

We lived in Lexington, a community of about two thousand, and later outside the larger town of Starkville, eighty miles east, where we raised sheep and cows. My father, Duane, was the local assistant county agent working his way up in the Cooperative Extension Service, a state and federal agency that helped farmers with crop and livestock problems. My mother, Elizabeth, whom everyone called Betty, played piano or organ in the Southern Baptist church. My older brother, Duane junior, whom everyone called Shane, and I would sometimes tag along with my father in his pickup truck as he went from farm to farm, turning from the narrow paved highways to gravel roads, the long trails of red and brown dust swirling out behind us.

Late at night on our small farm, I would curl beneath my sheets to listen to the train whistle blow for the clearing. I would sneak outside and watch it pass in front of our house in the moonlight. I stood in the yard, dew soaking my feet, and looked up past the oaks and pines to the stars above, feeling the earth rumble with the train's passing. I loved the place at such moments, I truly did. The sway of the trees and the whisper of the wind created a language all their own, and the night seemed warm and beautiful and secret.

On the long summer days and endless evenings, on rainy winter afternoons, with nowhere to go and not much to do, I began to lose myself in books and stories, imagining a world far from our sleepy pastures. I would start turning the pages and our house would fade away, replaced by another world that came from nowhere. Before I was thirteen, I read Treasure Island and Huck Finn and all of the Hardy Boys books and the Old Testament (when I was bored in church, which little boys often are) and Lord of the Rings and things that were way over my head, including Ernest Hemingway and Papillon, the memoirs of Henri Charriere, a French inmate who escaped from Devil's Island.

Those worlds seemed as real and important as anything going on in our little town--and a lot more exciting. I longed not just to watch the train go by our house, but to catch an armload of the next freight train running and ride it out of there, traveling to some of the places I read about. Then I would go sit on the railroad tracks and wonder what the real fairy tale was. For at least 150 years, as far back as anyone knew, everyone in my family had been a farmer in rural Mississippi.

But an era was coming to an end, and even the Magnolia State's "closed society," as one landmark book described it, was finally opening itself to the larger world. As the calendar pages fell and the years turned into the late 1970s, the Deep South's more vicious forms of racism began to ebb. The racial confrontations that roiled the country moved to the urban North. With the civil rights crusades fading into memory, with southern apartheid at least officially dismantled, small-town black and white teenagers in Mississippi began to try something none of our ancestors had--to grow up together. It was painful, it was odd, and sometimes it was surreal.

The most bizarre example of the latter could be found on the college football field, the Deep South's Saturday afternoon altar. In the 1970s, the University of Mississippi's football team was integrated, but the school still proudly went by the nickname of "Ole Miss" (the phrase slaves used for the plantation owner's wife in the antebellum days--as opposed to his daughter, who would be the "young miss"). The school's teams were called the Rebels, a reference to Confederate soldiers. That moniker, selected in the 1930s, came into play when the student body's other popular choice of the era, the Ole Massas (as in the slaves' name for the plantation owner), proved to be something of a tongue twister: the Ole Miss Ole Massas.

Nearly half a century later, a football game in Oxford looked like this: A black descendant of slaves with "Ole Miss" written on his helmet would score a touchdown for the Rebels. The lily-white school band would burst into "Dixie," the battle song of the Confederacy. Thirty-five thousand white fans would start waving the red and blue Confederate banner, the battle flag beloved by the Ku Klux Klan. And nobody acted like we all needed to be committed.

From the Hardcover edition.
Neely Tucker

About Neely Tucker

Neely Tucker - Love in the Driest Season

Photo © Bill O'Leary

Neely Tucker is the author of the novel The Ways of the Dead and the memoir Love in the Driest Season, which was named one of the Best 25 Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Currently a journalist with The Washington Post, Tucker lives with his family in Maryland.


“A triumph of heart and will.” —O, the Oprah Magazine

“An extraordinary book of immense feeling and significant social relevance. Love in the Driest Season challenges anyone—even those numbed by the world’s abundant cruelty—not to care.” —Washington Post

“Unceasingly compelling and filled with soaring highs and lows, Love in the Driest Season is a remarkable memoir of love and family.” —Pages

“A gorgeous mix of family memoir and reportage that traverses the big issues of politics, racism, and war.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Utterly heartfelt and truly inspiring.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Tucker’s hard-hitting memoir . . . is an almost unbelievable tale of bureaucracy, lunacy, and love. The suspense is stomach-wrenching and infuriating.” —Orlando Sentinel
About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

When foreign correspondent Neely Tucker and his wife,Vita, are transferred from Warsaw, Poland, to Zimbabwe in 1997, they are thrilled with the assignment and eager to put down roots in their new home. Yet not even Tucker’s hands-on experiences reporting from the most violent and lawless corners of the globe could prepare them for life at the epicenter of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. With an AIDS death approximately every twenty minutes, an average life span of thirty-eight, hundreds of thousands of babies orphaned or abandoned, and an acute, collective denial about the causes of the disease and the necessity of testing, the Zimbabwe the Tuckers encounter is a nation spiraling out of control. Tucker writes, “The scale of death, and the depths of misery it entailed, defied the imagination even for someone like me, who had chronicled some of the world’s deadliest conflicts for the better part of a decade.”

In an attempt to ground themselves and make a fraction of a difference in the unfolding political and social chaos, the Tuckers begin volunteering at Emerald Hills Children’s Home, a state-run orphanage set in an industrial slum on the south end of Harare. To their dismay, and despite their stopgap efforts at modernizing the facility, Tucker and Vita watch helplessly as thirty-five infants die there in twenty-four months. It is in this climate of despair and fear that the couple meets Chipo, the baby who will change their lives forever. Left to die in a field outside of town, Chipo is a tiny survivor in the deadly environment of the orphanage, holding on to life even as her weight plummets to just over four pounds and she wrestles with respiratory failure. For Tucker and Vita, it’s love at first sight, and they begin their maddening race to simultaneously keep Chipo alive and wade through the excruciating bureaucratic red tape of Zimbabwe’s adoption laws. Meanwhile, President Mugabe’s virulent anti-American sentiments reach a boiling point, and the Tuckers are suddenly no longer safe under a regime that labels its foreign journalists “enemies of the state.”

This unforgettable, at times shocking, story of love flourishing in the most hostile environment imaginable combines Tucker’s shrewd eye for journalistic detail and his heartfelt conviction as a new father. This guide is designed to direct your reading group’s discussion of Love in the Driest Season.

Discussion Guides

1. When the arrival of Tucker’s and Vita’s luggage in Zimbabwe precedes the granting of Tucker’s work permit, Tucker is charged by a senior officer in Zimbabwe’s Department of Immigration Control with American arrogance, and he is obliquely accused of racism: “You think little black Zimbabwe needs big white American men like you.” This assumption of American hubris becomes all too familiar later as Tucker and Vita confront Zimbabwe’s convoluted child welfare system. How much energy does Tucker put into proving the theory wrong? With whom does he succeed? Are there any points at which he inadvertently personifies the hated American stereotype?

2. Raised amid the devastating poverty and racism of rural Mississippi, Tucker escapes his surroundings and gets a sense of perspective through voracious reading. “I began to get a sense of where I was. It would eventually form one of the central lessons of my personal and professional life: I had been raised in the heart of the most racist state in America, and as a child, I had accepted the perverse as normal.” What “perversions” are he and Vita asked to accept as normal in Zimbabwe? Had they been able to stay in Zimbabwe indefinitely, as planned, do you think these perversions would have become more or less palatable to them?

3. Tucker writes: “I had the working idea that there was a higher form of truth to be found in the world’s most impoverished and violent places, a rough-hewn honesty that could not be found elsewhere. Life had a tautness to it there, a sheen that seemed to say something about the way the world was, not how anyone wanted it to be.” What do you think of Tucker’s “working idea”? What toll does living in these conditions exact from him and his colleagues, and is it worth it? How does his idea evolve after he falls in love with Chipo?

4. Tucker’s story graphically describes the horrors of the sub-Saharan AIDS epidemic, zeroing in on Zimbabwe, where AIDS has created a public health disaster on an unprecedented scale and where one in every four young adults is thought to be infected with the virus. But he touches only briefly on the social mores that have prevented most of the dying from ever being tested for HIV, as well as the Western ethical conflicts that have prevented a more aggressive anti-AIDS program from being introduced from abroad. Why do you think he keeps his opinions on these matters to a minimum? Would more political editorializing detract from Chipo’s story, in your opinion?

5. Why do the deaths of Ferai and Robert hit Tucker and Vita so hard? Are they naïve to be shocked by these fatalities? Tucker writes: “After Robert’s death, something ticked over in me, in Vita, and in our relationship . . . his death seemed to hang over us, an unseen and unmentioned influence that seeped into our lives . . .” How does it affect them?

6. When Chipo’s HIV test comes back negative, Tucker and Vita are elated: “I kept staring at the test result as if it were a winning lottery ticket.” How would Tucker’s memoir have been different if Chipo had been HIV-positive? Would their adoption process have proceeded any differently?

7. Six months before the parliamentary elections that will likely wreck havoc on all foreign journalists remaining in the country, and at the lowest point in Tucker and Vita’s seemingly endless wrangling with the welfare system, Tucker makes an uncharacteristic, almost naïve statement: “We wanted her more than the department did and, eventually, desire trumps bureaucracy.” How do you explain this burst of optimism?

8. . Tucker is forced to make a chilling decision between possibly helping thousands of unknown children and concretely rescuing one specific child. “Perhaps I could have written stories that, by their detail and close reporting, might have led nongovernmental organizations or private individuals to designate lifesaving help for any number of children. I could have demonstrated how the government’s decision to spend tens of millions of dollars to send troops to fight in another country’s civil war affected its own orphaned children. . . . But there was no point if it endangered the life of one child, one who meant more to me than all the others. I had broken the first rule of Journalism Ethics 101: Never get personally involved in a story you are assigned to cover.” Discuss the ethical implications of Tucker’s decision.

9. When the state-owned Sunday Mail runs an article stating that the Zimbabwean government has run out of resources with which to handle orphaned children, and urging families and local communities to rally and “take the burden off Government and bring an end to the anguish of these children,” Tucker is floored, not only by the government’s apparent “willingness to turn truth on its head,” but by its nonchalance in passing the buck to an already overextended public. Can you find any instances in the United States in the last fifty years, in which the federal government encouraged the privatization of matters some people consider to be the government’s responsibility?

10. “Developing a detachment from the suffering you witness and write about is a professional necessity, of course, but it can also become a job hazard of sorts,” writes Tucker. “It’s a steady erosion that diminishes your heart, drop by drop, bit by bit.” Discuss Tucker’s sudden conversion to caring. Is the switch profound and permanent, or does his previous attitude linger? How does his transformation affect his ability to process stress? How does it affect his marriage?

11. Tucker describes how, despite Mugabe’s dramatic and carefully orchestrated campaigns to “whip up anti-American rancor,” most Zimbabweans simply didn’t seem to care. How do you explain this public apathy?

12. Discuss how Tucker’s history forms his unorthodox view of what constitutes a family–“something that goes beyond bloodlines and shared last names.” Is this attitude vital to successful adoption?

Neely Tucker

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Neely Tucker - Love in the Driest Season

Photo © Bill O'Leary

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