‘The Time of the Lion’ book review-The most lyrical and gentle story ever written about lions
I have long been a fan of the art of Jackie Morris who has illustrated numerous children’s books, including one of my favourite animal books, How the Whale Became, (written by Ted Hughes), short stories about how many animals came into existence.
In the wake of a Minnesota dentist going into hiding following the international outrage over the hunting and killing of iconic Zimbabwean lion, Cecil, there seemed no more apt time to pick up Caroline Pitcher and Jackie Morris’s children’s book, The Time of the Lion. This tender tale follows the story of a young boy, Joseph, who lies in bed at night and hears the roaring of a lion and, though his father tells him it is not yet time for him to meet the creature, curiosity overcomes him and he runs out to the plains.
‘Then a roar thunderclapped across the wide savannah and Joseph saw the sun racing towards him. Its great head streamed with gold. It sprang on paws as big as drums, and its amber eyes glittered so that Joseph feared they’d burn him up there and then.’
Despite the initial fear Joseph feels, a friendship is born between the two of them. They play together (along with the lioness and their cubs) nap together and, ‘…when they woke, the heat of the day shimmered at the edge of the savannah.’ The lion and the boy also talk and, in one particularly prescient conversation bearing in mind the sickening fate of Cecil, the lion tells Joseph that ‘Danger is not always where you think. There are hungry hyenas and lean leopards, rampaging elephants and easy-running cheetahs.’ ‘And lions,’ laughed Joseph. ‘And most of all, men,’ growled the Lion.’
But one day, the fragile balance of their friendship is tested to the core. For the traders come to this land (though a country is never mentioned, I like to think of it as being Kenya) wanting to buy goods from Joseph’s father for the tourists. ‘And,’ they whispered, ‘we pay VERY well for lion cubs. The smaller, the better.’ Joseph can only watch in horror as the traders set out across the savannah, followed by his father who he believes to have betrayed the lion and the cubs when he is unable to find them later in the day, ‘…and he wept for all the lions in the world.’
When the traders make their final deal, Joseph hides his face in shame and runs into the night. ‘He waited. No ROAR. No sun. No Lion. Nothing.’ Returning to his village, bereft, he discovers that his father had also tricked the traders in order to keep the lions safe, hiding the cubs in large pottery urns in his market stall and urging the traders to buy the smaller pots of superior quality. When the Lion reappears before Joseph, his father turns to the creature and speaks:
‘‘Lion, when I was a boy, I was your father’s friend, and I spent my noon-times with him. The Time of the Lion is more precious than gold.’
And finally Joseph understands, that his father was once a young boy, just like himself, who had also learned from the lions.
As an aside and a teaser for the novel I’m currently writing, I have also been exploring the hunting of wild animals in Kenya (previously known as British East Africa) by early colonists. One of my characters, Jeremy Lawrence, entrenched in the mores of Africa’s colonial past, is (like a great many of his contemporaries) a prolific hunter. He has the heads and skins of his ‘trophies’ displayed in his primitive bungalow in Nairobi and, whilst I recoiled against writing this, a pivotal scene in my novel revolves around the protagonist’s fulfilment of her own desires whilst her husband, Jeremy Lawrence, seeks out the creature that he lusts after above all else: the lion. I had to try and get into the head of a hunter (no easy task, believe you me) and, in great detail, chart the staking out of the lion (or lioness in this case) through to the moment of her death. As I said, it really wasn’t easy to write this.
But somehow, it feels like the time of the lion right now, and if our children and grandchildren are to continue with the knowledge that lions roam in the wilds, and not just in zoos, we each have a role to play; to be mindful of the intricate interdependence of our planet’s fragile ecosytems that support both man and beast. The Time of the Lion can help our children to take one small but vital step towards this.
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