Sad tales from an African childhood

The locale is exotic but the sorrow in this memoir is all too commonplace.

If Leo Tolstoy were still around, he might want to rethink that opening sentence in "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." What is startling about Casting with a Fragile Thread, a new memoir about growing up in Africa, is how sadly familiar the troubles seem, despite having occurred thousands of miles away in a country that no longer exists.

Wendy Kann grew up during Rhodesia's civil war (1965-1979), before the country became Zimbabwe. But she was living in Westport, Conn., when she got the news that her younger sister Lauren had been killed in a car accident.

Lauren, who had been living unhappily on an isolated farm in Zambia, left behind her toddler, Luke. Her death, and Kann's frequent trips to Africa to help Luke, prompted her to write "Casting With a Fragile Thread."

Before the accident, Kann writes, she thought Africa belonged to a past left behind in favor of PTA meetings, motherhood, and the security of an upper-class Connecticut suburb. "By the time Lauren was killed, it had been years since I had worried about whether people whom I loved might live or die."

That worry seems caused, not so much by the civil war, but by an emotionally turbulent household. Before Lauren's birth, Kann's mother was beautiful and playful. "She yelled jump when the swing was at its highest, bit into onions like apples, and tried to convince me that it was always better to have flowers than food." But her mother spiraled into mental instability and alcoholism. A typical dinner was French fries and ketchup, or maybe peanuts. "There should be lots of words to describe drunk mothers, like the Inuit have words for snow," Kann writes.

Her dad, who ultimately divorced her mom, owned a lucrative, but highly leveraged, business. When she was 15, he died in a car accident, and financial ruin followed immediately. Kann and her sisters were raised by their stepmother, who had trouble coping with their financial straits. The girls lived in fear of being sent to an orphanage, and Kann was nearly kicked out of the house after her emotionally needy stepmother read her diary.

Kann finally left Zimbabwe with Mickey, the American she marries. Before him, she writes, "I had never dated a man who hadn't killed someone, or at least been prepared to kill someone."

Fans of Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," will find similarities: Both women grew up during Rhodesia's civil war, and both grappled with mentally unstable, alcoholic mothers. But Kann was more isolated from the war because of her father's wealth.

Like Fuller, Kann is candid about the racism she was carefully taught by her parents. The book features uncomfortable anecdotes, such as Kann amusing her parents by pretending to be a black student, and a shopping trip she took with cousins from England. "Mummy, Mummy, look at all the people!" a cousin shouts. "Confused, I stared out over the milling black heads and asked, 'Where?' "

While "Casting With a Fragile Thread" is smoothly written, it's also scattershot. Kann avoids unearned catharsis or big declarations, but after childhood, the memoir jumps around before tailing off abruptly when Luke comes to Connecticut for a brief visit. Ultimately, a reader wishes she'd tried harder to draw together the threads.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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