Jennifer McVeigh’s poignant novel, “Leopard at the Door,” gives the reader an evocative insight into British Colonial Africa. It is 1952 and Rachel Fullsmith is just returning to Kenya.
After the unexpected death of her mother and six years of dreary boarding school in England, 18-year-old Rachel returns to sunlit Kenya and her father’s farm and her childhood home, a place that is very different from the one she left and the father she hardly knows anymore. Rachel has spent most of the
six years since her mother died dreaming of coming back to the land she loves and seeing her father again. However, when she arrives, she finds her father is living with Sara, his partner, a difficult and opinionated woman, and her son.
Sara disapproves of Rachel’s ways.
Also, her father has changed. The Kikuyu who worked for her mother and father before were friends and her mother was involved in their education. Now they are treated as staff and no one is making any effort to make sure they are healthy or sufficiently clothed. It is no longer the idyllic colony she remembers but has been transformed with political unrest. Throughout the country Kenya is in a turmoil due to the Mau-Mau uprising. The Kikuyu community has been split apart, some remaining loyal to the British in Kenya and some violently revolting. They are a secret society forcing the peaceful Kikuyu to take oaths against the white man for usurping their land. Those who refuse are being tortured and killed. Those that do take the oaths are being forced to burn out their employees or kill them. The British remain steadfast in maintaining their old culture. Troops are being brought in to ferret out the Mau-Mau.
Rachel finds some of her old Kikuyu friends still working at the house. And she still speaks to them as her friends even as her father and Sara begin to think of them as the potential enemy. The injustices against the natives in their own land are epitomized by the actions of Sara, the District Officer Steven Lockhart, and her own father.
Rachel’s friend Michael had been her teacher when she was young. Her mother had insisted that she get the proper education, and since Michael was smart, educated and had served in the army during World War II, he was paid to tutor Rachel. But his potential to succeed in Colonial Kenya has been squelched and he is back working for the family as a mechanic.
Rachel’s return to Kenya transports the reader to the past. The author’s vivid description of the land and its people was carefully researched and enables the reader to observe how the native population of Kenya struggled against British Imperialism.It also shows the history of British Imperialism and offers insight into how Kenya finally emerged as its own nation.