Three Weeks in December
Schulman has written two stories here in alternating chapters; each stands on its own, so good you hate to leave its fully imagined world at the chapter’s conclusion. Together they make a rich and suspenseful novel, bringing in big issues of what makes us human, environmental destruction, love, parenting, and even insights into gorilla and human leadership.
In the first story, Jeremy, a young engineer and misfit, finds himself in love with life in 1899 British East Africa as he never felt in Bangor, Maine. He’s in charge of building a stretch of railroad; 700 laborers, mostly from India, are in his charge. They’re dying of malaria by the dozens and, even more terrifyingly, being picked off by a pair of lions.
In 2000, Max, a mixed-race, female ethnobotanist with Asperger’s (sometimes described as a milder form of autism), travels to a Rwandan mountain gorilla research station just across the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She too, finds comfort amidst Africa’s dangers, and she seems to understand the gorillas in ways the “normals” cannot.
As Jeremy must reluctantly hunt the two man-eating lions, Max must face her role in finding a vine that could help save thousands of lives from stroke or helping to save the few surviving mountain gorillas. Adding immediate danger to both Max and the gorillas (versus slow death by climate change, overpopulation, and resource extraction), child soldiers from the Congo are killing and eating both bush meat and foreigners.
The final third of this book is a page-turner, with both Jeremy and Max in deadly danger and facing impossible choices. Schulman pulls off this bravura writing with ease, as though fitting these two stories together were as simple as walking while chewing gum. Recommended and unforgettable.