Back when I used to jot down real tales about my guinea pigs, my husband suggested I get more creative by instead imagining what would happen if my guinea pigs were to visit our local zoo. In essence, this is what H.S. Toshack has done with his Paka Mdogo series except his heroine is a house cat named Sheena and her destination is the African Safari. To date, Toshack has written three books about Sheena, the third (The Meerkat Wars) which I reviewed earlier this year and the first two which I will review here. I love the Paka Mdogo books, which so wonderfully transport me into their exotic world that I lose all track of time. Moreover, as I journey with Sheena on her crazy adventures, the stress of my world evaporates.
Although she is larger-than-life, I love Sheena who is one cheeky and plucky house cat. In chapter one of Little Cat, the first book in the Paka Mdogo series, Sheena faces a decision. She is feeling lonely and bored. The housing compound where she lives is temporarily vacant of people. There also aren’t any animals around except for one lazy dog who prefers to daydream rather than chase Sheena. Sheena can elect to stay where she is, perhaps settling down in the shade to sleep, or she can venture onto the grounds of the nearby International School. When Sheena decides to follow this new path, she makes a decision that will change her life.
For on that path, Sheena encounters a monitor lizard named Kenge. In her encounter with Kenge, Sheena reveals just how daring and resourceful she is. At the same time, Kenge awakens within her a yearning to see the world. While fear tells Sheena to run from Kenge, curiosity makes her stay and talk. Upon learning that Sheena needs to make her own fun because people are away at school during the day, Kenge encourages Sheena to go North. There, in contrast to a dusty and smelly city, she would find gentle hills, open skies, and shady places. Even more exciting, there would be animals to chase and smells to track. Just when he’s enticed Sheena, Kenge reconsiders his suggestion and cautions: “Things that chase are chased in their turn.” When Sheena rejects this warning, Kenge instead tries to show her a few tricks, one of which includes swelling up to monster size. Turns out, Sheena knows some tricks of her own, such as arching her back, extending her claws, and spitting like fat sizzling in a pan. Her trick frightens Kenge enough that he decides it’s time to leave. Yet he can’t resist reminding Sheena that things which chase.
If by now you’re wondering how Sheena intends to go North, well, in the very next chapter transport is conveniently provided by the Allens (Sheena’s family) who just happen to decide to take a vacation there. Of the few flaws in the Paka Mdogo series, one of them is that resolutions sometimes depend more on luck than skill. But at least Toshack confesses to this weakness. When writing about how Sheena manages to sneak onto the family’s Land Rover without being caught, he openly admits: “This is where her luck (and she had lots of it) held.” It is luck indeed that the Allens leave open all the doors and then hang in front of the truck just long enough to allow Sheena time to wriggle into the back without being seen. Then again, it’s a nasty bit of bad luck that allows Sheena to be found by a jackal the moment the family makes a rest stop and Sheena takes a potty break. So, things don’t always work out perfectly for Sheena. And when they don’t, it’s up to Sheena to use her wits to save her hide, especially when she discovers to her horror that jackals can climb trees too. In the middle of forming friendships with giraffes and warthogs, Sheena spends the bulk of her time on safari evading some dangerous predators such as baboons, lions, pythons, and eagles. One of them even tries to attack the Allens.
THE GRADUAL ELEPHANT
Given her multiple close calls, you might wonder at Sheena’s decision in The Gradual Elephant to head back up North. Toshack addresses this question in the second chapter of The Gradual Elephant by telling us that one morning Sheena woke up to realize that her life was just too easy. “She wasn’t a young cat, and before she was old she wanted to smell many more smells, even if some of them frightened her to death.” I can’t fault her for that. The one difference is that because last time the Allens themselves had faced danger from a lioness with a sharp eye for a meal, Sheena decides this time to stay within sight of the Land Rover.
Sheena might have stuck to that resolution if not for a snake attack and an elephant’s request. Turns out, this particular snake isn’t just any old cobra; it’s a spitting cobra. Despite Sheena being six feet away, it blinds her with poison. As of this moment, I was hooked – I was not going to put down The Gradual Elephant without learning what would happen next. Toshack is an expert at building suspense. In one section, he writes about how Sheena regrets not having seen an elephant on her first visit, once had a tabby-cat friend named Toby, and feels confident about not getting lost as she seeks out smells because she can always find her way home by following the river bed. Just as I start to feel comfortable, Toshack writes that there’s a snake curled up ahead in the grass. Luckily, Sheena halts far enough from it to stay out of striking range – except that “Sheena had a made a mistake.”
A young elephant named Mpole saves Sheena’s life and she agrees to journey with him while he takes seven tests to prove his worth to the elephant herd. In Mpole, Toshack has created yet another endearing character. Mpole is a small elephant who is gradually getting big. Everything about Mpole is gradual, including his acquisition of skills. When he first showers Sheena with water, it feels to her as if the shower tap were either on or off, with nothing in between. The next time he tries, however, it feels instead as if it has less force. When Sheena learns that Mpole doesn’t feel grown up, but is being forced by his family to suddenly get older, she nicknames him “The Gradual Elephant” with the hope that he might feel okay to take thing slowly. That seems like sound advice for all of us.
THE PAGA MDOGO SERIES
For the most part, I appreciate not only the characters of the entire Paka Mdogo series but the plot too. For example, one of my favorite moments in The Gradual Elephant is when Mpole meets The Only Elephant, who asks Mpole a series of questions. To prepare Mpole, Sheena offers advice that she had heard Dad Allen give to Thomas Allen about passing exams. Yet ultimately these questions are not so much about what riddles Mpole can solve or what knowledge he can regurgitate, but are more about admitting to his greatest fear. Based on Mpole’s admission, the Only Elephant gives Mpole his hardest challenge: “You must persuade a young cow elephant that you are not stupid. You must chase her and you must get her to stop and wait for you. She must let you come close to her and touch her with your trunk.” As a side note, when you read The Gradual Elephant, see how long it takes you to figure out the one riddle Mpole is unable to solve.
Unfortunately, I didn’t always appreciate the plot. You might recall that I criticized Little Cat for having some contrived solutions. Well, they happen again in The Gradual Elephant. The worst comes near the end and involves poachers. My husband loves how fantasy authors transport him into another world, but complains that some authors seem to feel their imaginary world isn’t enough without over-the-top drama. Sadly, this is what happens in the climax of the first two books in the Paka Mdogo books (but not in the third book The Meerkat Wars, which has a more plausible end. Perhaps this shows Toshack has grown more adept at handling plot structure, which is good news for readers.) Sheena is admittedly unusually clever and witty for a cat, but I willingly accept this bit of fantasy only up until the point Sheena faces the impossible situation of keeping poachers from killing Only Elephant. Sheena is only a house cat. There should be some limits to what she can do. And when there aren’t, I feel a little jarred, which is an undesirable reaction when reading an otherwise stupendous series.
After hearing how much I enjoyed The Meerkat Wars, H.S. Toshack sent me a copy of the first two books in The Paka Mdogo series. I reverently put them aside until I had time to savor them. Now that I have, I write this glowing review with hopes that Toshack will grace the world with a thousand more tales of Sheena.
P.S. Has anyone figured out yet why Sheena has a stubby tail? All The Paka Mdogo books allude to there being a reason for it, but so far I have not encountered an explanation.