Review of William G. Spain's The African Adventures of James Johnson

bubba-140Bubba: The African Adventures of James Johnson
by William G. Spain (Malawi 1966–68)
ZIWA Books
$25.00 (paperback)
400 pages

Reviewed by Walter Morris Baker, Ph.D. (Ethiopia 1966-68)

Reading novels for pleasure is not a usual practice for me. Since leaving Peace Corps service almost fifty years ago, my reading has been primarily directed toward reading professional articles and books related to my career as a Psychologist and government regulations related to other occupational activities. For that reason, my reading is usually conducted very slowly in search of details and nuances.

With that in mind, I accepted the task of reading Bubba: A Novel for the purpose of writing a review.

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

It is a good thing the author makes this statement before the reader dives into this novel!  The characters to which the reader is introduced seem all too familiar. Coincidentally, my first job after leaving Peace Corps volunteer service was Desk Officer for Somalia, Uganda, and Malawi. This novel delivers to the reader details, nuances, pleasure, excitement, intrigue, and much more.  This well told tale mimics history almost too closely and is in many ways difficult to accept as the product of one person’s imagination. Especially the imagination of a Returned Peace Corps volunteer who might be old enough to be entitled to receive social security.  The folks who populate these pages are all “good people” trying desperately to do good. Doing good is not always an easy task. Mr. Spain might be attempting to provide evidence for the old axiom “No good deed goes unpunished.” This reviewer wonders if there exists a journal written decades ago out of which came the birth of Bubba. Why has this author waited so long to publish this particular story?

This novel is reminiscent of my own time as a PCV in Ethiopia when a certain man named Baamlaku came up from where he lived deep in the Blue Nile gorge with his band of men to lead a failed revolution against His Imperial Majesty  Emperor Haile Selassie. That incident is probably referenced in Ethiopia: Power & Protest: Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century by Gebru Tareke (March 1966). Perhaps these revolts were more common than we knew.

In his novel Spain traffics in political shenanigans, high treason, clandestine love, bleeding-heart liberalism, peoples’ power and petty gossip!  There are so many historical truths encountered as the plot unravels, the reader is at a loss as to what is truth, what is fiction, what characters to trust and whom to dislike.

Fortunately, this is one of those books about a faraway land, a country with which many are not familiar, written in such a way that knowledge of a foreign language is not required of the reader. The little details may be troublesome to folks who were in Malawi in the mid-sixties.  President Banda’s government did not tolerate mini-skirts well.  I can remember flying into Malawi hearing the captain announce the descent and the last opportunity for women to remove “excess ” make-up and change into “appropriate” attire.   I also remember arriving in a Malawian city at a private club accompanied by a couple of Associate Peace Corps Directors where I, an African American, was refused service.  Some readers may be troubled because they think they “actually know” the characters, although the author states unequivocally the names and places are totally fictitious.

Because I am used to reading professional texts, my first act was to lift the book and turn to the back in search of an index.  There is no index, no glossary of terms. Fortunately, I did not read the last page of the novel first. The ending is a blockbuster.

When Mr. Spain settles the movie deal, I hope that he will offer me the role of Chief Katumbi.

Mr. Spain has  hit a homerun on his first time out!

Walter Morris Baker, Ph.D., in 2009 completed  a successful forty-year career in which he was at one time engaged in international development (serving as PCD in Tunisia and Deputy CD in Philippines), academia (serving as Professor of Psychology at McMurry University – Abilene, TX), and domestic community development (serving a Director of a Community Action Program responsible for thirteen TX counties).  During the early 1970s Morris  was also psychologist on multiple Peace Corps training sites preparing volunteers for Kenya, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Dahomey, and Cameroon.  He now lives in Abilene, TX.


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  • I agree. These reviews are so interesting and all the more so since
    many reviewers are not “polished professionals” but intelligent, accomplished persons telling their truths even when crazyness interupts
    accepted delusions. John Coyne charges often innocently, but always
    interestingly upstream. A great editor as well as a fine writer himself.

  • Let me add that the other editor who I didn’t mention is equal
    in authority, grace, and ability. Her name is Marian Haley Beil,
    also a former PCV from the early days. The flowering of RCPV
    older women and men is just amazing. I wonder if this may be
    due to the easing of family and career obligations.

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