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True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir

True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir

3.5 6
by Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway

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Both a revealing self-portrait and dramatic fictional chronicle of his final African safari, Ernest Hemingway's last unpublished work was written when he returned from Kenya in 1953. Edited by his son Patrick, who accompanied his father on the safari, True at First Light offers rare insights into the legendary American writer.

A blend of autobiography and


Both a revealing self-portrait and dramatic fictional chronicle of his final African safari, Ernest Hemingway's last unpublished work was written when he returned from Kenya in 1953. Edited by his son Patrick, who accompanied his father on the safari, True at First Light offers rare insights into the legendary American writer.

A blend of autobiography and fiction, the book opens on the day his close friend Pop, a celebrated hunter, leaves Ernest in charge of the safari camp and news arrives of a potential attack from a hostile tribe. Drama continues to build as his wife, Mary, pursues the great black-maned lion that has become her obsession, and Ernest becomes involved with a young African girl whom he supposedly plans to take as a second bride. Increasingly enchanted by the local African community, he struggles between the attraction of these two women and the wildly different cultures they represent. Spicing his depictions of human longings with sharp humor, Hemingway captures the excitement of big-game hunting and the unparallel beauty of the landscape. Rich in laughter, beauty and profound insight. True at First Light is an extraordinary publishing event — a breathtaking final work from one of our most beloved and important writers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
David Gates Newsweek A major literary event...a new window into the tantalizing, unsettling, oceanic world of his experimental, unfinished late work.

Alan Ryan Atlanta Journal-Constitution Belongs on the top of the must-read pile for anyone who loves Hemingway.

John Balzar Los Angeles Times First Light is sprinkled with the prose high notes that made Hemingway famous.

Corey Mesler The Commercial Appeal There is a feeling of real joy in this book...A celebration of living... the prose of a master.

The Barnes & Noble Review
Lately I had read with distaste various books written about myself by people who knew all about my inner life, aims and motives. Reading them was like reading an account of a battle where you had fought written by someone who had not only not been present but, in some cases, had not even been born when the battle had taken place. All these people who wrote of my life both inner and outer wrote with an absolute assurance that I had never felt. --Ernest Hemingway, from True at First Light

A graduate student, one of the most talented people in the creative writing program where I teach, came to my office. She was there to talk about my fiction workshop the following semester, to get to know me briefly, and to see if she wanted to take the class. "So," she said. "Hemingway. You're like this big Hemingway fan."

It was not an accusation, but it was not exactly not an accusation, either. She was certainly wary. She said what she said as if my admiration for Hemingway were cute but sadly boyish. Something I ought perhaps to have evolved beyond, like science fiction, pornography, or pulling pigtails. The evidence she had that I was this big Hemingway fan came from a fiction reading I'd recently given, where I'd read a part of a novel of mine in which I'd summoned the hubris to deploy Hemingway as a fictional character. I started out thinking I might parody Hemingway, but I couldn't exactly do it. I reread too much of his work and admired it too much. What I had thought of as a tone of hale machismo was really something else, some charmingly lacking absolute assurance about anything (and, by extension, the punishment of characters prideful enough to imagine there really was anything to be absolutely sure about).

"How could I not admire Hemingway's work?" I said.

She made a face. It was not really to her taste, all that bullfighting and big-game hunting and sweaty male conquests.

I asked her what she'd read and when.

"Touché," she said. The answers, naturally, were not all that much and in high school. When it was assigned.

"Read more Hemingway," I said. "Read it for fun."

She was not alone. People have firm opinions about Hemingway based on his persona and not his books. When a lot of people think of Hemingway, they think of a look-alike contest at a franchised Sloppy Joe's restaurant near you, where there are a row of portly, grinning men in white beards who look nothing like the way Hemingway looked when he was younger and wrote nearly all his best work. His late-life biographical details -- the wives, the drinking, the safaris, the suicide -- overwhelm his work. Worse than that, of course, is thinking of Hemingway not as something to read but as homework.

For all of these reasons and more, Ernest Hemingway may be the most underrated of all American writers.

I recently reread A Farewell to Arms, a book I first read when it was assigned to me during my sophomore year at college and then hastily reread for my grad-school oral exams. I had thought of it as sentimental. Not my favorite of his novels, I had thought. But I thought a lot of things in those days that I do not think now. I had somehow not taken enough pleasure in the astonishing descriptions of the Italian landscape, both at the very beginning of the book and the mirror image of that scene late in the novel, during the retreat from Caporetto: scenes which, read closely, tell the story of the lovers too, scenes full of simple rhythms as complicated and syncopated as anything ever created by Joyce or Faulkner or for that matter Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, or Thelonious Monk.

Also, I had not noticed how funny a book it is.

Right after Frederic Henry gets hurt (the signature Hemingway leg injury), thus facilitating the evolution of a war story into a love story (though of course it's both), comes this scene:

In the ward at the field hospital they told me a visitor was coming to see me in the afternoon.... My orderly had finished pouring water and the bed felt cool and lovely and I was telling him where to scratch on the soles of my feet against the itching when one of the doctors brought in Rinaldi. He came in very fast and bent down over the bed and kissed me. I saw he wore gloves.

"How are you baby? How do you feel? I bring you this --" It was a bottle of cognac. The orderly brought a chair and he sat down, "and good news. You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d'argento, but perhaps they can get only the bronze."

"What for?"

"Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?"

"No," I said. "I was blown up while we were eating cheese."


Actually, Midwesterner that Hemingway was, he has Henry blown up in Italy while eating macaroni and cheese.

* * *

"... [A]ll a writer of fiction is really is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men. I am a writer of fiction and so I am a liar too and invent from what I know and what I've heard....

"My excuse is that I make the truth as I invent it truer than it would be. That is what makes good writers or bad. If I write in the first person, stating it is fiction, critics now will still try to prove these things never happened to me. It is silly as trying to prove Defoe was not Robinson Crusoe so therefore it is a bad book." --from True at First Light

Hemingway wrote this at mid-century. In the time it took for that manuscript to go from being his current passion to temporarily abandoned to permanently abandoned to 1,000 yellowing pages in a depressed alcoholic's file cabinet, then to become a part of his estate and then the sort of book that remained unpublished and controlled by his heirs and then to become his son Patrick's current passion (as amateur editor) and then (now), finally, a posthumously published "fictional memoir" -- during those 40 years, things both stayed the same and changed.

Of course nothing has changed about the complex connection between lying that is truer than the truth and daily journalism's onslaught of facts that are accurate but total lies. These are more dangerous than the inaccuracies, because the inaccuracies can be corrected, but there is nothing to remedy a factual, untrue lie except art. Figuring out what that means, acquiring an intuitive understanding of all that, lies at the heart of the slow, painful, wonderful process that is the fiction writer's apprenticeship.

Hemingway knew this better than anybody and said this better than almost anybody and demonstrated this in a body of work as good as anybody's. Anyone who is serious about writing who does not become serious about reading Hemingway is not serious about writing. There are entire creative writing textbooks poised between the lines of some of his short stories. "The Killers." "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio." The overlooked masterpiece "Fifty Grand." And of course the very short story "Hills Like White Elephants," a story that can teach a reader and/or a writer just about every important thing there is to know about dialogue and about setting and about how to skew the reader's sympathies.

"Hills Like White Elephants" is a rebuke as well for anyone who fails to understand that to depict a thing is not to endorse it. Depicting unsavory but true human behavior (in this story, a particularly male style of bullying one's mate -- here, to get an abortion because it would be convenient for him) is not the same thing as endorsing or embodying unsavory human behavior. As the novelist Frederick Busch says in his excellent essay "Hemingway's Sentence" (collected in A Dangerous Profession), anyone who deploys the name-calling to which lit crit has sunk and from which Hemingway's rep has unjustly suffered (charges, in other words, of sexism, of racism, of sentimentality, of machismo excesivo) as an excuse not to read Hemingway's work is not serious about writing and, I would argue, neither serious nor open-minded about reading, either, and would benefit greatly from being locked in a comfortable room for a week with only "Hills Like White Elephants" and a view of some distant green hills and some nearby dusty trees. For the extremely judgemental cases, we will supply on the nightstand some absinthe. Drink at your own risk. Same goes for the failure to reread.

As for the state of critics now (as opposed to critics then, when Hemingway wrote that and called them "critics now"), that has changed. True, there is still the mania among critics -- and even readers, the blessed lay counterparts for which they stand -- to reduce the reading of fiction into a parlor game involving the biographical details of the writer. In Hemingway's time, the form this took was that people would consider the work authentic only insofar as it could be proven that the author experienced things directly analogous to the action depicted.

(To this I say: Tolstoy did not fight in the Napoleonic wars; Emily Dickinson did not often leave the house; and "Charles Dickens" was not a pen name for every single living person in Victorian England. Defoe rhymes with but was not Crusoe.)

That trivializing habit seems to have evolved so that now, too often, a writer's work is read and, alas, taught only to be decoded. The work itself gets short shrift or, worse, dismissed as a means to an end, a document valuable only insofar as it allows hypotheses about the writer's life both inner and outer, written with absolute assurance no good writer would ever feel.

For no writer is this a bigger problem and a larger injustice to the body of work than for Hemingway. Part of this is his own fault, of course; during the last 20 depressed and liquor-soaked years of his life, he invented and played to the hilt the role of Papa Hemingway. Even his last wife called him Papa. His own son, Patrick, calls him Hemingway. His best work behind him, he became more celebrity than writer.

That said, to his credit, he kept writing. Other American writers for whom this is true -- Truman Capote leaps to mind -- neither left behind a body of work as formidable as Hemingway's nor did they keep writing.

To his detriment, however, or at least to the detriment of his reputation, everything he wrote and subsequently abandoned during those years has now been published. Nearly a dozen books' worth of largely inferior material is out there with Hemingway's name on it (published, it must be said, against his wishes): 38 years now of "new" Hemingway in which each book has tended to be a little weaker than the last.

None of these books is without interest, if read with generosity by readers who've already read and reread most of the stories and The Sun Also Rises and the very flawed but audacious For Whom the Bell Tolls and the tight, deliciously mannered The Old Man and the Sea. And then read the stories again. But for people who have not, these volumes of journalism and memoir and letters and failed novels and now "fictional memoir" (and there is no evidence Ernest Hemingway would have labeled it such) tend to stress both Hemingway's excesses (though, to be fair, he never had the chance to edit any of these himself, and, as Busch shows, Hemingway may have been without peer as an editor of his own work) as well as a great many prurient autobiographical details.

With this year's centennial celebration of Hemingway's birth, as his life recedes further into the past, here's hoping for an ushering in of a new era, one that eschews the trivia of the man's life and revels in the richness of his peerless work.

* * *

"We are [crazy]," I said. "But you mustn't tell outsiders."

"But you don't really mean all writers are crazy?"

"Only the good ones."

"But you got angry when that man wrote a book about how you were crazy."

"Yes, because he did not know about it nor how it worked. Just as he knew nothing about writing."

"It's awfully complicated," Miss Mary said.

"I won't try to explain it. I'll try to write something to show you how it works." --from True at First Light

—Mark Winegardner

James Hunter
True at First Light is a great, long blowzy affair with moments and passages of mounting beauty and effect. It concerns hunting and women and other places and writers...all considered from the perspective of someone very close in sensibility to our lingering impression of Ernest Hemingway in... Papa Mode.
&151; The New York Observer
Ron Charles
[The book] recounts splendid imaginary hunting adventures of an American writer with his fourth wife in an intensely dangerous land, the scenery of which is fairly well described…
Christian Science Monitor
James Wood
The flat swagger of the language keeps you wary, if only for its rare volleys. There is a kind of mottled glamour, made up of bullying integrity and nonsense, of truth and falsity....This was Hemingway's revolution, to take first-person narration and make it into the original style of a third-person author....[This book] serves as a warning to let Hemingway be, both as a literary estate and as a literary influence.
The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
...Hemingway was able to externalize and objectify the conflicting elements of his own personality in his fiction....First Light focuses on Mary's disappointing encounter with a lion: an encounter in which the Hemingway character must come to her aidkill the lion and then try to cheer her up....[The book] possesses a certain narrative tension and drive…
The New York Times
Hemingway's last book, True at First Light, is called "a fictional memoir.' Its structure and surroundings are very similar to Green Hills of Africa (1935), about which Hemingway said that he'd "attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.'
True at First Light was written almost twenty years later. There is a different wife (although Heming way's women all seem to speak their thoughts in the same exaggeratedly simple way). And there are, according to Hemingway's son Patrick, who edited the manuscript down to half its original size and wrote the introduction, fictional elements to this story. Because it does not have a dominant plot line that's carried all the way through the book, but rather several mini-plots that gradually develop, are resolved and fade away, True at First Light reads more like a memoir or journal than a novel. Hemingway, who narrates, is married to Miss Mary, a petite blond woman who hungers ferociously to kill a lion—and not just kill it, but kill it without taking any shortcuts, such as shooting an animal at close range from the protection of a Jeep. Perhaps she is trying to prove her worth to Hemingway, who is charmed by a native girl in a nearby village. This teenager, Debba, wants to become Hemingway's "supplementary wife' and goes around calling herself his fianceé. It's obvious from her frequent comments about Debba that Mary doesn't take her quite seriously, but she just as obviously can't forget about her either. Meanwhile,Heming way, who has been left in command when his longtime safari guide, Pop, is forced to return home, must deal with the threat of attack from a hostile tribe that is said to be heading toward their camp.

Hemingway adores Mary: "She was a very strange girl and I loved her very much. She had, at the moment, only two defects. She was very short for honest lion hunting and she had too good a heart to be a killer and that, I had finally decided, made her either flinch or squeeze off a little when shooting at an animal. I found this attractive and was never exasperated by it.'

It needs to be said that there is as much spectacular blood, gore and killing in this book as in any self-respecting Bruce Willis movie, and if you have no stomach for that you'd better not read it. But there is both respect and humor in Hemingway's de piction of Africa and in his portrayal of the by-then quite frequent white invasion of Africa for the sole purpose of adventurous killing. At one remarkable point, Mary, after almost being eaten by a rhinoceros, retires to her tent with a Campari and soda and the latest New Yorker.

At another point, Heming way asks Mary, "'What were you smiling about in your sleep after you had your tea?'

"'Oh, that was my wonderful dream. I met the lion and he was so nice to me and so cultured and polite. He'd been at Oxford, he said, and he spoke with practically a BBC voice. I was sure I had met him before someplace and then suddenly he ate me up.'

"'We live in very difficult times,' I said. 'I guess when I saw you smiling was before he ate you up.''

The marital relationship, its blessings and curses, is what holds the rest of the action together—that, and Hemingway's recollections of earlier marriages and earlier safaris, of Paris in the 1920s, of himself as a younger writer. Mary is always trying to get him to write something new, but, in the course of this book, he never does. Instead, he reflects. In one passage, unable to sleep, he struggles to recall a line of F. Scott Fitzgerald's: "I remembered how Scott Fitzgerald had written that in the something something of the soul something something it is always three o'clock in the morning . . . It had occurred in a series of articles in which he had abandoned this world and his former extremely shoddy ideals and had first referred to himself as a cracked plate.' He gets up and puts his boots on and goes to sit outside in the African night, where he is joined by G.C., the regional game warden, and eventually he remembers it verbatim: "In a long dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.' He re peats it to G.C., who responds:

"'You don't ever have despair, do you Ernie?'

"'Not yet.'

"'You'd probably have had it by now if you were going to have it.'

"'I've seen it close enough to touch it but I always turned it down.''

Less than ten years later, of course, that despair apparently came close enough to touch, and Hem ingway chose not to turn it down. The question has been asked, was this particular work good enough to be published posthumously? The answer, finally, goes almost without saying: Bad Hemingway is realms above good almost-anyone-else, and True at First Light is, in fact, not-bad Hemingway.

Publishers Weekly
More a curiosity than a major contribution to his oeuvre, this fictional memoir of a 1953 safari in Kenya, edited by Hemingway's son Patrick from a first-draft manuscript and published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Papa's birth, is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes trying read. Hemingway narrates the rambling story in his own voice, and others, including his wife, Mary, are identified by name. More humorous than most of Hemingway's novels, the narrative also contains enough hunting scenes for Hemingway and others to show the requisite grace under pressure. The old Hemingway magic flashes sporadically, like lightning, but not often enough. There are a series of sentences intoning "I wished..." reminiscent of his earlier linguistic triumphs, and some dialogue, crisp and to the point, like the stichomythia of Greek tragedy. Lines like "So I carried her in and she weighed just what a woman that you love should weigh when you lifted her in your arms...." still resonate. The Kenyan setting is atmospheric, but the promising elements of the plot — a possible Mau Mau attack on the camp, Miss Mary's determination to kill a lion — too often stagnate for lack of action and dramatic tension. Some uneasiness occurs between Hemingway and Mary over Hemingway's attraction to an African woman, Debba, but even this is pretty tame. A supporting cast of African characters are not distinct individuals, and the prolific use of Swahili words is often confusing in spite of a glossary. Yet, as prose by Hemingway, no matter how distanced and imperfect, the book is still worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire new readers to delve into Hemingway's true legacy, the novels and stories like "Cat in the Rain," and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
Library Journal
It's not often that this column gets to cite something by a truly classic author, but here it is: Hemingway's last work, written after he returned from his 1953 safari and edited by his son, Patrick, in time for this July's centennial celebration. Hemingway even stars in this "fictional memoir," running the safari camp in the absence of friend and lead hunter Pop even as hostile tribes gather to attack. But he still has time to sneak in an affair with an African girl. Along with this work, Scribner will publish three new hardcover editions of Hemingway classics: The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Death in the Afternoon, and To Have and Have Not.
David Gates
...[M]uch of it reads like B-plus Hemingway — with some of the funniest passages he ever wrote....Rose Marie Burwell, a...professor who specializes in his unfinished late work...sees it as a daring, if ultimately thwarted, expedition into postmodern narrative and the strange country of [Hemingway's] obsessions.
Kirkus Reviews
Ernest Hemingway never kept a journal, says his son Patrick, editor of this book from a manuscript twice its size describing life in a Kenyan safari camp in the winter of 1953–54. It can of course be called fiction, however much it seems like a journal. An autobiography, say. Little "happens." The threat of an uprising of local Africans soon dissipates. Christmas is coming ("the Birthday of the Baby Jesus") and wife Mary chooses a tree that "would make an elephant drunk for two days if he ever ate it." Daily hunting has taken place for six months in hopes of fulfilling Mary's strong wish to kill a lion, a desire both she and Hemingway say they "understand," though the reader may not. Patrick hints that it has to do with Mary's feelings about Debba, a beautiful and charming African girl whom Hemingway would like (quite seriously) to take as a second wife if law only permitted. The lion is killed, but Mary is unsatisfied, believing that Hemingway shot first (he didn't). In time, after Mary takes a trip to Nairobi, all is well again and the two embarrass the reader anew with their love-endearments ("we'll both sleep like good kittens"). The true book, though, is less in its events than in the unmonitored voice of its author. Hemingway, talking, offers a compendium of his familiar old symbols, themes, moods, feelings, details. But the voice is also like hearing the author from somewhere beyond the grave, speaking from within his own absence. "You don't ever have despair do you Ernie?" asks a friend. The answer, sad in a way it could never have been when written: "I've seen it close enough to touch it but I always turned it down." Uneven, imperfect, irritating, amusing, moving, and oftreasurable importance to an understanding of this massive however flawed genius of our literature.

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From Chapter One

Things were not too simple in this safari because things had changed very much in East Africa. The white hunter had been a close friend of mine for many years. I respected him as I had never respected my father and he trusted me, which was more than I deserved. It was, however, something to try to merit. He had taught me by putting me on my own and correcting me when I made mistakes. When I made a mistake he would explain it. Then if I did not make the same mistake again he would explain a little more. But he was nomadic and he was finally leaving us because it was necessary for him to be at his farm, which is what they call a twenty-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Kenya. He was a very complicated man compounded of absolute courage, all the good human weaknesses and a strangely subtle and very critical understanding of people. He was completely dedicated to his family and his home and he loved much more to live away from them. He loved his home and his wife and his children.

"Do you have any problems?"

"I don't want to make a fool of myself with elephants."

"You'll learn."

"Anything else?"

"Know everybody knows more than you but you have to make the decisions and make them stick. Leave the camp and all that to Keiti. Be as good as you can."

There are people who love command and in their eagerness to assume it they are impatient at the formalities of taking over from someone else. I love command since it is the ideal welding of freedom and slavery. You can be happy with your freedom and when it becomes too dangerous you take refuge in your duty. For several years I had exercised no command except over myself and I was bored with this sincot imagine a situation, or, rather, I would not wish to survive a situation in which I called him, in private, Mr. Percival or he addressed me by my proper name.

So on this morning there were many questions I wished to ask and many things I had wondered about. But we were, by custom, mute on these subjects. I felt very lonely and he knew it of course.

"If you did not have problems it would not be fun," Pop said. "You're not a mechanic and what they call white hunters now are mostly mechanics who speak the language and follow other people's tracks. Your command of the language is limited. But you and your disreputable companions made what tracks there are and you can make a few new ones. If you can't come up with the proper word in your new idiom, Kikamba, just speak Spanish. Everyone loves that. Or let the Memsahib talk. She is slightly more articulate than you."

"Oh go to hell."

"I shall go to prepare a place for thee," Pop said.

"And elephants?"

"Never give them a thought," Pop said. "Enormous silly beasts. Harmless everyone says. Just remember how deadly you are with all other beasts. After all they are not the woolly mastodon. I've never seen one with a tusk that made two curves."

"Who told you about that?"

"Keiti," Pop said. "He told me you bag thousands of them in the off-season. Those and your saber-toothed tiger and your brontosauruses."

"The son of a bitch," I said.

"No. He more than half believes it. He has a copy of the magazine and they look very convincing. I think he believes it some days and some days not. It depends on whether you bring him any guinea fowl and how you're shooting in general."

"It was a pretty well illustrated article on prehistoric animals."

" Yes. Very. Most lovely pictures. And you made a very rapid advance as a white hunter when you told him you had only come to Africa because your mastodon license was filled at home and you had shot over your limit on saber-toothed tiger. I told him it was God's truth and that you were a sort of escaped ivory poacher from Rawlins, Wyoming, which was rather like the Lado Enclave in the old days and that you had come out here to pay reverence to me who had started you in as a boy, barefoot of course, and to try to keep your hand in for when they would let you go home and take out a new mastodon license."

"Pop, please tell me one sound thing about elephants. You know I have to do away with them if they are bad behaving and if they ask me to."

"Just remember your old mastodon technique," Pop said. "Try and get your first barrel in between that second ring of the tusk. On frontals the seventh wrinkle on the nose counting down from the first wrinkle on the high forehead. Extraordinary high foreheads they have. Most abrupt. If you are nervous stick it in his ear. You will find it's simply a pastime."

"Thank you," I said.

"I've never worried ever about you taking care of the Memsahib but take care of yourself a little bit and try to be as good a boy as you can."

"You try too."

"I've tried for many years," he said. Then, in the classic formula he said, "Now it is all yours."

So it was. It was all mine on a windless morning of the last day of the month of the next to the last month of the year. I looked at the dining tent and at our own tent. Then back to the small tents and the men moving around the cooking fire and then at the trucks and the hunting car, the vehicles seeming frosted in the heavy dew. Then I looked through the trees at the Mountain showing very big and near this morning with the new snow shining in the first sunlight.

"Will you be all right in the truck?"

"Quite. It's a good road you know when it's dry."

"You take the hunting car. I won't need it."

"You're not that good," Pop said. "I want to turn this truck in and send you one that is sound. They don't trust this truck."

It was always they. They were the people, the watu. Once they had been the boys. They still were to Pop. But he had either known them all when they were boys in age or had known their fathers when their fathers were children. Twenty years ago I had called them boys too and neither they nor I had any thought that I had no right to. Now no one would have minded if I had used the word. But the way things were now you did not do it. Everyone had his duties and everyone had a name. Not to know a name was both impolite and a sign of sloppiness. There were special names too of all sorts and shortening of names and friendly and unfriendly nicknames. Pop still cursed them in English or in Swahili and they loved it. I had no right to curse them and I never did. We also all, since the Magadi expedition, had certain secrets and certain things privately shared. Now there were many things that were secrets and there were things that went beyond secrets and were understandings. Some of the secrets were not at all gentle and some were so comic that you would see one of the three gun bearers suddenly laughing and look toward him and know what it was and you would both be laughing so hard that trying to hold in the laughter your diaphragm would ache.

It was a clear and beautiful morning as we drove out acros s the plain with the Mountain and the trees of the camp behind us. There were many Thomson's gazelle ahead on the green plain switching their tails as they fed. There were herds of wildebeests and Grant's gazelle feeding close to the patches of bush. We reached the airstrip we had made in a long open meadow by running the car and the truck up and down through the new short grass and grubbing out the stumps and roots of a patch of brush at one end. The tall pole of a cut sapling drooped from the heavy wind of the night before and the wind sock, homemade from a flour sack, hung limp. We stopped the car and I got out and felt the pole. It was solid although bent and the sock would fly once the breeze rose. There were wind clouds high in the sky and it was beautiful looking across the green meadow at the Mountain looking so huge and wide from here.

"Do you want to shoot any color of it and the airstrip?" I asked my wife.

"We have that even better than it is this morning. Let's go and see the bat-eared foxes and check on the lion."

"He won't be out now. It's too late."

"He might be."

So we drove along our old wheel tracks that led to the salt flat. On the left there was open plain and the broken line of tall green-foliaged yellow-trunked trees that marked the edge of the forest where the buffalo herd might be. There was old dry grass growing high along the edge and there were many fallen trees that had been pulled down by elephants or uprooted by storms. Ahead there was plain with new short green grass and to the right there were broken glades with islands of thick green bush and occasional tall flat-topped thorn trees. Everywhere there was game feeding. They moved away as we came close, moving sometimes in quick bursts of galloping; sometimes at a steady trot; sometimes only feeding off away from the car. But they always stopped and fed again. When we were on this routine patrol or when Miss Mary was photographing they paid no more attention to us than they do to the lion when he is not hunting. They keep out of his way but they are not frightened.

I was leaning out of the car watching for tracks in the road as my gun bearer, Ngui, who sat in the outside position behind me was doing. Mthuka, who was driving, watched all the country ahead and on both sides. He had the best and quickest eyes of any of us. His face was ascetic, thin and intelligent and he had the arrowhead tribal cuts of the Wakamba on both cheeks. He was quite deaf and he was Mkola's son and he was a year older than I was. He was not a Mohammedan as his father was. He loved to hunt and he was a beautiful driver. He would never do a careless or irresponsible thing but he, Ngui and myself were the three principal bads.

We had been very close friends for a long time and one time I asked him when he had gotten the big formal tribal cuts which no one else had. Those who did have them had very lightly traced scars.

He laughed and said, "At a very big Ngoma. You know. To please a girl." Ngui and Charo, Miss Mary's gun bearer, both laughed.

Charo was a truly devout Mohammedan and was also known to be very truthful. He did not know how old he was, of course, but Pop thought he must be over seventy. With his turban on he was about two inches shorter than Miss Mary and watching them standing together looking across the gray flat at the waterbuck that were now going carefully, upwind, into the forest, the big buck with his bea utiful horns looking back and to either side as he entered last in line, I thought what a strange pair Miss Mary and Charo must look to the animals. No animals had any visual fear of them. We had seen this proven many times. Rather than fearing them, the small blond one in the forest green coat, and the even smaller black one in the blue jacket, the animals appeared interested in them. It was as though they had been permitted to see a circus or at least something extremely odd and the predatory animals seemed to be definitely attracted by them. On this morning we were all relaxed. Something, or something awful or something wonderful was certain to happen on every day in this part of Africa. Every morning when you woke it was as exciting as though you were going to compete in a downhill ski race or drive a bobsled on a fast run. Something, you knew, would happen and usually before eleven o'clock. I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy. At least until I remembered unfinished business. But on this morning we were relaxed in the momentary irresponsibility of command and I was happy that the buffalo, which were our basic problem, were evidently someplace where we could not reach them. For what we hoped to do it was necessary for them to come to us rather than for us to go to them.

"What are you going to do?"

"Bring the car up and make a quick swing to check for tracks at the big water and then go into that place in the forest where it borders the swamp and check and then get out. We'll be downwind of the elephant and you might see him. Probably not."

"Can we go back through the gerenuk country?"

"Of course. I'm sorry we started late. But with Pop going away and every thing."

"I like to go in there in that bad place. I can study what we need for a Christmas tree. Do you think my lion is in there?"

"Probably. But we won't see him in that kind of country."

"He's such a smart bastard lion. Why didn't they let me shoot that easy beautiful lion under the tree that time. That's the way women shoot lions."

"They shoot them that way and the finest black-maned lion ever shot by a woman had maybe forty shots fired into him. Afterwards they have the beautiful pictures and then they have to live with the god-damn lion and lie about him to all their friends and themselves the rest of their lives."

"I'm sorry I missed the wonderful lion at Magadi."

"Don't you be sorry. You be proud."

"I don't know what made me this way. I have to get him and he has to be the real one."

"We overhunted him, honey. He's too smart. I have to let him get confidence now and make a mistake."

"He doesn't make mistakes. He's smarter than you and Pop both."

"Honey, Pop wanted you to get him or lose him straight. If he didn't love you you could have shot any sort of a lion."

"Let's not talk about him," she said. "I want to think about the Christmas tree. We're going to have a wonderful Christmas."

Mthuka had seen Ngui start down the trail for him and brought up the car. We got in and I motioned Mthuka toward the far water at the corner across the swamp. Ngui and I both hung out over the side watching for tracks. There were the old wheel tracks and the game trails to and from the papyrus swamp. There were fresh wildebeest tracks and the tracks of the zebra and Tommy.

Now we were going closer to the forest as the road swung and then we saw the tracks of a man. Then of another man wearing boots. These tracks had been rained on lightly and we stopped the car to check on foot.

"You and me," I said to Ngui.

"Yes," he grinned. "One of them has big feet and walks as though he is tired."

"One is barefooted and walks as though the rifle were too heavy for him. Stop the car," I said to Mthuka. We got out.

"Look," said Ngui. "One walks as though he were very old and can hardly see. The one with shoes."

"Look," I said. "The barefoot one walks as though he has five wives and twenty cows. He has spent a fortune on beer."

"They will get nowhere," Ngui said. "Look, the one with shoes walks as though he might die at any time. He staggers under the weight of the rifle."

"What do you think they are doing here?"

"How would I know? Look, the one with shoes is stronger now."

"He is thinking about the Shamba," Ngui said.

"Kwenda na Shamba."

"Ndio," Ngui said. "How old would you say the old one with the shoes is?"

"None of your damn business," I said. We motioned for the car and when it got up we got in and I motioned Mthuka toward the entrance to the forest. The driver was laughing and shaking his head.

"What were you two doing tracking yourselves?" Miss Mary said. "I know it's funny because everybody was laughing. But it looked quite silly."

"We were having fun."

I was always depressed by this part of the forest. The elephants had to eat something and it was proper that they should eat trees rather than destroy the native farms. But the destruction was so great in proportion to the amount they ate from the trees they pulled down that it was depressing to see it. Elephants were the only animal that were increasing steadily throughout their present range in Africa. Th ey increased until they became such a problem to the natives that they had to be slaughtered. Then they were killed off indiscriminately. There were men who did this and enjoyed it. They killed old bulls, young bulls, cows and calves and many liked their work. There had to be some sort of elephant control. But seeing this damage to the forest and the way the trees were pulled down and stripped and knowing what they could do in a native Shamba in a night, I started to think about the problems of control. But all the time I was watching for the tracks of the two elephants we had seen leading into this part of the forest. I knew those two elephants and where they would probably go for the day, but until I had seen their tracks and was sure they were past us I must be careful about Miss Mary wandering around looking for a suitable Christmas tree.

We stopped the car and I took the big gun and helped Miss Mary out of the car.

"I don't need any help," she said.

"Look, honey," I started to explain. "I have to stay with you with the big gun."

"I'm just going to pick out a Christmas tree."

"I know. But there could be every kind of stuff in here. There has been too."

"Let Ngui stay with me then and Charo's here."

"Honey, I'm responsible for you."

"You can be an awful bore about it too."

"I know it." Then I said, "Ngui."


The joking was all suspended.

"Go and see if the two elephants went into the far forest. Go as far as the rocks."


He went off across the open space watching ahead for tracks in the grass and carrying my Springfield in his right hand.

"I only want to pick one out," Miss Mary said. "Then we can come out some morning and dig it up and get it back to c amp and plant it while it is still cool."

"Go ahead," I said. I was watching Ngui. He had stopped once and listened. Then he went on walking very carefully. I followed Miss Mary who was looking at the different silvery thorn shrubs trying to find one with the best size and shape but I kept looking back at Ngui over my shoulder. He stopped again and listened then waved toward the deep forest with his left arm. He looked around at me and I waved him back to us. He came in fast; as fast as he could walk without running.

"Where are they?" I asked.

"They crossed and went into the forest. I could hear them. The old bull and his askari."

"Good," I said.

"Listen," he whispered. "Faro." He pointed toward the thick forest on the right. I had heard nothing. "Mzuri motocah," he said, meaning, in shorthand, "Better get into the car."

"Get Miss Mary."

I turned toward where Ngui had pointed. I could see only the silvery shrubs, the green grass and the line of tall trees with vines and creepers hanging from them. Then I heard the noise like a sharp deep purr. It was the noise you would make if you held your tongue against the roof of your mouth and blew out strong so your tongue vibrated as a reed. It came from where Ngui had pointed. But I could see nothing. I slipped the safety catch forward on the .577 and turned my head to the left. Miss Mary was coming at an angle to get behind where I stood. Ngui was holding her by the arm to guide her and she was walking as though she were treading on eggs. Charo was following her. Then I heard the sharp rough purr again and I saw Ngui fall back with the Springfield ready and Charo move forward and take Miss Mary's arm. They were even with me now and were worki ng toward where the car must be. I knew the driver, Mthuka, was deaf and would not hear the rhino. But when he saw them he would know what was happening. I did not want to look around. But I did and saw Charo urging Miss Mary toward the hunting car. Ngui was moving fast with them carrying the Springfield and watching over his shoulder. It was my duty not to kill the rhino. But I would have to if he or she charged and there was no way out. I planned to shoot the first barrel into the ground to turn the rhino. If it did not turn I would kill it with the second barrel. Thank you very much I said to myself. It is easy.

Just then I heard the motor of the hunting car start and heard the car coming fast in low gear. I started to fall back figuring a yard was a yard and feeling better with each yard gained. The hunting car swung alongside in a tight turn and I pushed the safety and jumped for the handhold by the front seat as the rhino came smashing out through the vines and creepers. It was the big cow and she came galloping. From the car she looked ridiculous with her small calf galloping behind her.

She gained on us for a moment but the car pulled away. There was a good open space ahead and Mthuka swung the car sharply to the left. The rhino went straight on galloping then slowed to a trot and the calf trotted too.

"Did you get any pictures?" I asked Miss Mary.

"I couldn't. She was right behind us."

"Didn't you get her when she came out?"


"I don't blame you."

"I picked out the Christmas tree though."

"You see why I wanted to cover you," I said unnecessarily and stupidly.

"You didn't know she was in there."

"She lives around here and she goes to the stream at the edge of the sw amp for water."

"Everybody was so serious," Miss Mary said. "I never saw all of you joke people get so serious."

"Honey, it would have been awful if I had had to kill her. And I was worried about you."

"Everybody so serious," she said. "And everybody holding on to my arm. I knew how to get back to the car. Nobody had to hold on to my arm."

"Honey," I said, "they were only holding your arm so that you wouldn't step in a hole or trip on something. They were watching the ground all the time. The rhino was very close and might charge anytime and we're not allowed to kill her."

"How did you know it was a female with a calf?"

"It stood to reason. She's been around here for four months."

"I wish she wasn't right in the place where the Christmas trees grow."

"We'll get the tree all right."

"You always promise things," she said. "But things are much simpler and better when Mr. P. is here."

"They certainly are," I said. "And they are much easier when G.C. is here. But there is nobody here but us now and please let's not fight in Africa. Please not."

"I don't want to fight," she said. "I'm not fighting. I simply don't like to see all you private joke people get so serious and so righteous."

"Have you ever seen anybody killed by a rhino?"

"No," she said. "And neither have you."

"That's right," I said. "And I don't intend to. Pop's never seen it either."

"I didn't like it when you all got so serious."

"It was because I couldn't kill the rhino. If you can kill it there's no problem. Then I had to think about you."

"Well, stop thinking about me," she said. "Think about us getting the Christmas tree."

I was beginning to feel somewhat righteous and I wished that Pop was with us to make a diversion. But Pop was not with us anymore.

"We are going back through the gerenuk country at least aren't we?"

"Yes," I said. "We turn to the right at those big stones up ahead across the mud flat at the edge of the high tree bush those baboons are crossing into now and we proceed across the flat to the east until we come to that other rhino drop. Then we go southeast to the old Manyatta and we are in the gerenuk country."

"It will be nice to be there," she said. "But I certainly miss Pop."

"So do I," I said.

There are always mystical countries that are a part of one's childhood. Those we remember and visit sometimes when we are asleep and dreaming. They are as lovely at night as they were when we were children. If you ever go back to see them they are not there. But they are as fine in the night as they ever were if you have the luck to dream of them.

In Africa when we lived on the small plain in the shade of the big thorn trees near the river at the edge of the swamp at the foot of the great mountain we had such countries. We were no longer, technically, children although in many ways I am quite sure that we were. Childish has become a term of contempt.

"Don't be childish, darling."

"I hope to Christ I am. Don't be childish yourself."

It is possible to be grateful that no one that you would willingly associate with would say, "Be mature. Be well-balanced, be well-adjusted."

Africa, being as old as it is, makes all people except the professional invaders and spoilers into children. No one says to anyone in Africa, "Why don't you grow up?" All men and animals acquire a year more of age each year and some acquire a year more of knowledge. The animals that die the soonest learn the fastest. A young gazelle is mature, well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of two years. He is well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of four weeks. Men know that they are children in relation to the country and, as in armies, seniority and senility ride close together. But to have the heart of a child is not a disgrace. It is an honor. A man must comport himself as a man. He must fight always preferably and soundly with the odds in his favor but on necessity against any sort of odds and with no thought of the outcome. He should follow his tribal laws and customs insofar as he can and accept the tribal discipline when he cannot. But it is never a reproach that he has kept a child's heart, a child's honesty and a child's freshness and nobility.

Copyright © 1999

Meet the Author

Ernest Hemingway did more to influence the style of English prose than any other writer of his time. Publication of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms immediately established him as one of the greatest literary lights of the 20th century. His classic novella The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He died in 1961.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
July 21, 1899
Date of Death:
July 2, 1961
Place of Birth:
Oak Park, Illinois
Place of Death:
Ketchum, Idaho

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True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First Light brings Hemmingway back to life and shows the reader a rare side of the author not seen before. To read his thoughts in this raw form indicates Hemmingway's superb style and passion for life. He loved all the people who were a part of his world during this last African expedition. He loved the adventure, the people, the animals, the hunt and the kill also. Because the book remains unpolished and basically unfinished, the reader is provided with a sense of knowing and understanding the author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a Hemingway novel and don't confuse it with one. This is a fictional memoir that gives fascinating personal insight in to what Hemingway was feeling in Africa. Figuring out what is fact and what is fiction is pointless. Does it really matter? Enjoy the beautiful descriptions of Africa and ignore the poor dialogue. It is worth it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As is explained within the book, Hemingway died while this was still in journal form. Family members, trying to preserve the journal format while pushing toward something that could be called a "book" finalized and had it published. Rough around the edges but a very good read about people and places and an era that doesn't exist anymore.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If I were on safari with any of these people I would use them for lion bait. This is even worse than Green Hills of Africa. Try Ruarks 'Horn of the Hunter', a far superior read.