Book review: Listening for Lions

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A moving little book, tenderly and achingly written.

In Gloria Whelan’s Listening for Lions (2005), Rachel is the daughter of a workaholic physician in Kenya.  The flu kills her parents and Valerie, a girl her age.  Valerie’s parents pretend to help Rachel, but actually intend her to pose as their daughter for selfish reasons to be learned later on in the book.

As an adult reader, your heart goes out to Rachel because you see how she blames herself for so many things that should be blamed on selfish grown-ups surrounding her.  Rachel fears that she will get in trouble for many things, like initially agreeing to Valerie’s parents’ plans, which, as an adult, you can see that she really won’t get in trouble for.  Despite Rachel’s intelligence and strength, she is too innocent or immature to foresee exactly what consequences will befall her if the truth of her identity does or does not come out.

Listening for Lions is written for young audiences.  It is marked by insightful, clear, but almost dreamlike prose.  At less than 200 double-spaced pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s not really the kind of book you’d want to rush through.  It encourages sitting back and weighing the words carefully, like you’re listening to a good old story from a grandmother or great aunt.

Just don’t expect much at all about lions.  Rachel loves Kenya, birds, books, and helping people.  She likes the roars of lions late at night, and she misses those sounds when she is in England.  But there is never a significant scene or deep connection involving a lion.  The lion’s roar is basically auditory wallpaper.  Compared to her lifelong interest in birds, making lions a title element is misleading.

Still, recommended, especially for smart or strong girls.

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