When death strikes unexpectedly, it can change everything. This is what Ken Verrier discovers in The Dung Beetles of Liberia: A Novel Based on True Events. When his brother dies, he drops out of college and leaves town for the most remote place he can think of, far from anything he's ever experienced: Liberia, where he accepts a new job as a transport pilot.
The story literally opens with a bang as Ken struggles to bring his small plane to a rocky landing, waiting nuns squealing in the microphone in his ear while his stomach churns with the dysentery which is so common to any white man who visits Africa.
The dung beetles also appear in this opening salvo of action to lend further atmosphere to a story that offers up a unique, intriguing, action-filled voice right from the start: "I saw the airstrip through a parting of the clouds—and I dove for it. I flew the airplane straight onto the runway with a couple of hard bounces, pulled it to a dusty stop, and set the parking brake. Leaving the engine idling with the prop turning over slowly, I bailed out of the cabin. I ran to the bush, which was mostly grass and weeds about chest high, and, with only moments to spare, relieved myself. While this relief was occurring, I heard the distinctive wuush, wuush, wuush of dung beetles crawling through the grass. I had been told that they could hear a mouse break wind from five miles away and could follow the scent. With my pants around my ankles and the sun beating down on my head, I started a little hippy hop, hippy hop movement to keep away from them. And here came the good sisters in their Land Rover. “Oh, Mr. Pilot! Mr. Pilot, Mr. Pilot! Where are you?”
This introduction captures only a fraction of the action which ensues as readers are treated to a story that is steeped in the culture, politics, ironies, and worlds of Africa: one that lingers in the mind with many thought-provoking, changing scenarios: "Koto,” Andre said, “this is Boss Ken. He is one of our new pilots and he is also a mechanic from the United States.” Koto looked unfazed. “He will be the boss. You do what he says.” Had we been in a maintenance shop in the US, this kind of speech and introduction would have caused instant resentment and led to numerous labor conflicts. Koto, however, smiled his near toothless smile, nodded his head in agreement, and said, “Yes boss, I unnastan. He know sheenery. He know sheenery mo dan me.”
As stark contrasts between Liberia and the USA permeate an engrossing story of adventure, revelation, change, and coming to terms with many kinds of obstacles, readers will be thoroughly engrossed in a story that reveals 1960s Liberia's social and political disparity between wealth and poverty. These are the very topics the protagonist knew very little about before his sojourn.
Having this element of discovery, as seen through an American boy's eyes, makes for a novel that is especially compelling in its contrasts between the very wealthy and the very poor in Liberian society. Descriptions are exact and atmospheric: "We followed other arriving guests across the parking area and along the newly laid walkways into the new Executive Mansion. Inside, we were directed to a large, central room, which I assumed was the main ballroom.
It had been finished in imitation of the French Rococo style, but without the elegance or refinement. Several crystal chandeliers hung from the high, rounded ceiling. Guards dressed in uniforms that looked similar to what might have been worn by Napoleon’s generals were stationed at doorways and along the walls. The sound of a string quartet playing chamber music echoed from the marble walls. An elaborate bar with several bartenders was at the far end of the room, and to the side was a lavish display of European and Liberian delicacies. There was an actual roasted boar with an apple in its mouth."
While leisure readers seeking an adventure read set on international grounds will be the most likely audience for
The Dung Beetles of Liberia, they will find educational and revealing the very real social insights and messages embedded into Ken's story of discovery. This makes the novel equally highly recommended for those who like their stories replete with social messages and, especially, insights into Africa's world in general and Liberian politics and history in particular.
The blend of fictional action and nonfiction social inspection is simply exquisite, and are strengths that set this story apart from many other fictional pieces sporting African settings.
Reviewed by Diane Donovan