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Three Weeks in December

Three Weeks in December

4.4 7
by Audrey Schulman

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In 1899 Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves a small town in Maine to oversee the construction of a railroad across East Africa. In charge of hundreds of Indian laborers, he soon finds himself the reluctant hunter of two lions that are killing his men in almost nightly attacks on their camp. Plagued by fear, wracked with malaria and alienated by a secret he can tell no


In 1899 Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves a small town in Maine to oversee the construction of a railroad across East Africa. In charge of hundreds of Indian laborers, he soon finds himself the reluctant hunter of two lions that are killing his men in almost nightly attacks on their camp. Plagued by fear, wracked with malaria and alienated by a secret he can tell no one, he takes increasing solace in the company of the African who helps him hunt. In 2000 Max, an American ethnobotonist, travels to Rwanda in search of an obscure vine that could become a lifesaving pharmaceutical. Stationed in the mountains, she closely shadows a family of gorillas, the last of their group to survive the encroachment of local poachers. Max bears a striking gift for understanding the ape's non-verbal communication, but their precarious solidarity is threatened as a violent rebel group from the nearby Congo draws close.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Deftly weaving the forays of two individuals, separated by a century, into the unknown heart of Africa, Schulman’s fourth novel, her first in 11 years, tracks an engineer named Jeremy, who in 1889 accepts a contract to supervise the construction of a bridge in British-controlled East Africa, and female botanist Max Tombay, who travels to modern-day Rwanda at the behest of a pharmaceutical company in search of the next blockbuster drug. Though Max treads undaunted into gorilla territory, the threat posed by child soldiers makes her wonder if her search is worth it. Jeremy feels Africa’s pull in a more personal way; he’s an outcast in his Maine town and dreads a life spent at the side of his disapproving widowed mother. Sympathetic to her two loners while accepting their faults, Schulman (A House Named Brazil) nudges her characters into their fears in order to measure their reactions, but her greatest asset is her cultural sensitivity. Finding the lonely orphan in an armed child or the playful cat within a man-eating lion, she yields her story’s mysteries slowly, with evident relish. Agent: Richard Parks, the Richard Parks Agency. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"Audrey Schulman does a beautiful job of balancing adventure, suspense and self-discovery." — Michele Ross, CNN

"[A House Named Brazil is] Quirky and thoughtful... Schulman renders the strange beauties of a world that draws on resources scarcely known to us." — The New York Times

"A genuine page-turner with literary content." — Boston Globe

"Lyrical . . . Suspenseful . . . Schulman's heroine [in The Cage] is a true original transformed emotionally and physically by experiences marvelously imagined and compellingly described." — The Los Angeles Times

"Bizarre yet intriguing . . . More than enough to keep readers turning pages. . . Schulman's language is lovely." — USA Today

Library Journal
Its abundance has made Africa ripe for exploitation, but among those who arrive with less-than-honorable intentions are some who will become so enthralled with the land and its inhabitants that they cannot—will not—leave. In 1899, Maine engineer Jeremy hires on with the British to supervise the construction of a railroad through East Africa, paving the way for English settlers while carelessly displacing the indigenous people. Some 100 years later, Max, an ethnobotanist chosen by a "big pharma" corporation, travels to a gorilla research facility in Rwanda to test and return with a rare vine that could become a medical miracle. In alternating chapters, Schulman (The Cage) weaves two mesmerizing tales based on historical fact and enlivened by sympathetic, fully formed characters. Jeremy feels compelled to prove his manhood when his encampment of Indian workers is threatened by a pair of aggressive lions, while Max immerses herself in the silent world of the endangered gorilla families. VERDICT Teaching without preaching, Schulman speaks to the dichotomy between the preservationists and the destroyers of Africa's resources while treating readers to a veritable visceral cornucopia of the senses. This beautiful novel deserves wide readership.—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
Two Americans have life-altering experiences in Africa a century apart in this environmentalist adventure novel from Schulman (A House Named Brazil, 2000, etc.). In December 1899, Jeremy arrives in East Africa from Maine to work as engineer in the construction of a railroad that will open Africa up to colonists. Jeremy, whose homosexuality is not spoken of but obvious, has never fit in at home, and he soon realizes the other white man at the project site will not accept him. But he falls in love with Africa. Soon he is involved in hunting two lions that have been terrorizing both the local population and his Indian laborers. His local guide and fellow hunter is Otombe, who picked up English living with missionaries as a child. In December 2000 another Maine native arrives in Rwanda. Max is a botanist hired to search out miracle beta blockers reputed to exist in certain hard-to-find vines that endangered Rwanda gorillas use medicinally. She has always been an outsider, partly because her professor father was black but mainly because she has Asperger's Syndrome. Never comfortable with human interactions, she forms an almost immediate kinship with the gorillas. Schulman shifts between Jeremy and Max's experiences. Jeremy becomes a hero for shooting one of the lions. Parting from Otombe without expressing his true feelings, he sublimates them in his sexual liaison with an African woman who reminds him of Otombe and bears him a child he takes back to Maine. Max's idyll with her new gorilla family is threatened by the growing power of a violent cult of child soldiers from the nearby Congo called the Kutu. As the marauding Kutus approach, Max goes into hiding among the gorillas with a sense of both joy and impending doom. Advocacy fiction--a little preachy and obvious but also genuinely passionate about both the cause of African wildlife and the sensory experience of Africa, which Schulman brings to tactile life.
Bruce Barcott
…Schulman creates a remarkably fresh, complex and memorable character…This is Max's book. It's a story about the senses, about perception and observation, the signals we send out into the world…By allowing us to experience life through Max's extraordinary perspective, Schulman delivers the known world in startling new sounds, colors, tastes and smells.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Audrey Schulman is the author of three previous novels: Swimming With Jonah, The Cage and A House Named Brazil. Her work has been translated into eleven languages. Born in Montreal, Schulman now lives in Massachusetts.

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Three Weeks in December 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Maine-Girl More than 1 year ago
The book is written in two narratives taking place about 100 years apart and set during the month of December. Both main characters, Jeremy Turnkey and Max Tombay, are social misfits and both are launched on a course of self-discovery in a strange country. The author's background research and writing are excellent. One reviewer wrote: "When I read Audrey Schulman's Three Weeks in December, I was transported back to the time when I read literary novels by the dozen. In college and graduate school, especially, I loved fiction that took me to other countries, or even to other worlds. I lived for sentences so beautiful that they could bring me to my knees. Never mind where those sentences might take me. I just wanted to bask in the crystalline light of words and images perfectly crafted." In 1899 Jeremy Turnkey, a young engineer, leaves a small town in Maine to oversee construction of a 500-mile railway across British East Africa, designed to expand European interests on the continent. Much of his story takes place near a bridge over the River Tsavo, in the country now called Kenya. As a white boss with a gun in charge of hundreds of Indian laborers, Jeremy is responsible for destroying two lions that are killing his workers in nightly attacks on the railroad camp. Plagued by fear, wracked with malaria, struggling to understand new social customs, and alienated by a personal secret, Jeremy takes increasing solace in the company of his African scout, Otombe. In fact, Jeremy develops a reluctance to kill the lions because doing so means leaving the soul-nourishing company of the fellow hunter with whom he sits side by side in a blind at night. In 2000, Max Tombay, an ethnobotanist with Asperger's Syndrome, has been commissioned by a pharmaceutical company to find an obscure Rwandan "medicinal" vine that male mountain gorillas eat and that could help thousands of people with heart disease. Stationed in the mountains with a small research group, Max shadows a family of gorillas—the last of their group to survive the merciless assault of local farmers and poachers. Ironically, it is her Asperger's that allows Max to communicate with and be accepted by the gorillas, whose social behavior is in many ways similar to hers. But soon her precarious freedom is threatened as a violent rebel group (quat-chewing child soldiers called the Kutu), which is targeting whites and advancing from the nearby Congo. (The Kutu is a fictional army, but based on actual child soldiers in Africa.) Max has mixed feelings about finding the vine because then she'll have to leave the soul-nourishing company of the foraging gorillas, with whom she works side by side each day. Told in alternating perspectives that interweave the two characters and their fates, Audrey Schulman’s novel confronts the struggle between progress and preservation, idiosyncrasy and acceptance. As a New York Times review states: "It’s a story about the senses, about perception and observation, the signals we send out into the world." Even though the stories alternate by chapters, each could have stood alone. Putting them together allows readers to compare the similarities and differences between two individuals who are in Africa for both similar and diverse reasons in widely separated time periods. Both characters wish to escape the pain caused by their separation from normal society. Both are so eager for a new start that they leave home with little concern for their own safety. Both try to control their emotions and maintain their outlook through thoughts and memories. Both characters must face similar concerns: survival in the face of unfamiliar social groups and potentially dangerous wild animals. Reading the chapters alternately illustrates how their lives connect and intersect, despite the 100-year time difference. This enthralling fiction explores some of the crucial social and cultural challenges that have shaped our world over the years. In Africa, both Max and Jeremy come to terms with their deepest sense of self and learn to love the continent which at first was so culturally foreign. Max learns that her Asperger’s symptoms and her skills as an ethnobotanist are the very traits that win acceptance by the mountain gorillas. Her keen sense of smell, her ability to focus, and her natural way of being "still” win her an acceptance she was unable to obtain from "neurotypicals." Jeremy learns to appreciate who he is so that what he is running from becomes less frightening to him. This is a book to appreciate and mull over with its beautiful descriptions of Africa and the wonderful depictions of the two main characters.
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Don't read to much detail in review about this book, much of the enjoyment of the story comes from the interesting way it unfolds. It's a great story well researched and well crafted. I highly recommend it.
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