Robyn Scott's memoir, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Penguin Press, 464 pages, $24.95), is a vegan Swiss Family Robinson, complete with its own campy theme song: a region-specific adaptation of "An English Country Garden." Set in the bush in Botswana during the '90s, it chronicles the experience of the recently transplanted Scott family from New Zealand—author "Robbie;" her parents, Keith and Linda; her siblings, Lulu and Damien; and their various unfortunate pets. Together, the Scotts weather all kinds of trouble, from a miffed muti (witch doctor) to fussy nuns at convent school to racist South African neighbors. It's an enchanting book from someone who has lived a genuinely interesting life, and it's littered with useful historical extras like Sir Seretse Khama and the rise of HIV.
On a more tacit level, Twenty Chickens functions as a comprehensive guide to raising well-adjusted children. Using her own education as a core curriculum, Scott offers covert meditations on race, class, natural medicine, alternative education, sustainability and AIDS. But the way she does it—and this is the book's great success—is by telling interesting stories and leaving the pedantry out.
One of the best instances of Scott's sola fabula sense is the title-giving story about her desire for a new saddle. Her parents won't buy it for her outright, but they agree to finance a business venture whereby she can earn her own money. Intrepid Robbie starts an egg business—specifically, humane eggs from cast-out industrial laying hens—and gets her saddle in the end. But when the chickens grow old and cease laying, they must be slaughtered, a sight so odious that Scott folds her business at once.
It's a great story—alternately laugh-out-loud funny and depressing—and it's told with the straightforward practicality of a greedy kid. Only long after reading it does one realize the vast swath of moral terrain it covers. In it, there are tacit lessons about life cycles, the humane treatment of animals and a proper business education.
That doesn't mean Twenty Chickens is perfect. As with any book of fables, there exist only the most tenuous connections between chapters—the same characters, of course, and the same setting, but little else. Want a compelling, overarching plot structure? Fugheddaboudit. Also, Scott's refusal to draw any but the most obvious moral conclusions from her stories is both intentional and a little infuriating. But these are quibbles regarding an otherwise eminently readable and deceptively ambitious little book.
Robyn Scott will read from her memoir and sign copies at 7 pm on Monday, April 21, at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651.