Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: Karen Blixen's Untold Story

by Linda Donelson

Published by Coulsong

1998, 440 pages

Buy it online





Out of Karen Blixen’s Africa

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


It's a story most of us are familiar with, even if it's in an indirect way. The Hollywood feature Out of Africa starring Merle Streep was noted enough that even those who didn't see it understand some of the references. What many people -- this reviewer included -- didn't realize at the time was that the character Streep portrayed wasn't a fictional someone. Rather, she was a living person who breathed adventure at a time when women most often did not.

Out of Isak Dinesen, the story of the Baroness Karen von Blixen, is non-fiction. There is no question about that. Author Linda Donelson has gone to great lengths to research the story of the woman who first came to fascinate her when she was living on a research farm in Nairobi, not far from Karen Blixen's farm. Donelson is a physician and her medical background shows in the thoroughness of her research. When one peruses the bibliography, for example, one gets the feeling that there isn't a lot that's been left out. Donelson has used diaries, letters and Blixen's own writing to reconstruct Blixen's life: first as a young girl in Denmark through to marrying Baron von Blixen and gaining the title she'd always coveted, and on to turn-of-the-century Africa: the beauty, the vastness and the ultimate disappointments.

Blixen wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen: Dinesen being her own maiden name. As we learn in Out of Isak Dinesen, it was under this name that Blixen published her stories about life on an African coffee farm between 1914 and 1931.

Donelson's portrait is a sensitive one, though not one-sided. Blixen comes across as strong and resolute as well as the somewhat spoiled product of her aristocratic Danish upbringing. Blixen is shown to be made of the all of the conflicting pieces that most humans are: alternately feeding native children during a drought; mourning the death of her dog Dusk as though she'd lost a child; running supplies to the army during the war and priding herself on being the "finest hostess in Nairobi".

Donelson also looks closely at the challenges to Blixen's health that seemed to have shaped her adult life. Her husband Bror gave her syphilis during the early part of their marriage and this would effect not only the course of their relationship, but almost every aspect of her life that followed. Though cured in Denmark as early as 1915, Blixen continued to treat herself with arsenic and other primitive preparations in a way that seems to have damaged not only her physical health, but the health of her mind. While she remained clear -- and even brilliant -- until the end of her life in the 1960s, her seeming preoccupation with the effects of that early syphilis infection may well have paved the way for other physical and mental afflictions that followed. Donelson's reportage of these events as well as her research are impeccable, as well as being interesting reading.

Out of Isak Dinesen is one woman's story, but it is also a beautiful portrait of Africa at the beginning of this century and the political and environmental influences that affected it.

As her health improved, Karen went riding and caught glimpses of lions on the plains; the newly green grass offered food for the wildebeest, and there were herds of zebra too for the lions to prey upon. The giraffes who were seen among the acacia trees at the river in the dry season moved on, with ostriches and antelope, to a wider, wetter territory. The safari season ended when the rains began: dry stream beds were flash-flooded, and tents and vehicles could not withstand repeated drenchings.

Snapshots of Blixen's Africa are written with the same lyricism Donelson brings to breathing life into her portrayal of the woman herself.

One may imagine the tableau: Karen in her riding boots and divided skirt, carrying her double felt hat, her round face red and angry: Farah beside her in his long white kanzu and turban, glaring at the servants; the barefoot boys, in rough shorts, listening as Farah questioned them in Swahili. He dealt with them with the haughtiness of a king, turning to Karen to explain what was said.

The dialog in the book was taken from the voluminous correspondence Blixen carried out with her friends and family over the years. As well, many of the fictional stories she wrote borrowed liberally from her life and various emotions and situations she was dealing with. Donelson uses this dialog skillfully. There is no jolt of transition, nor are we ever unclear where these words came from.

It was cool at night; Karen wrote to her brother, "I must say that in fact I suffered more from cold that heat on this safari... Then by midday the sun is blazing, it is hard to shoot because the air is shimmering in the heat."

Out of Isak Dinesen is a lovely book, skillfully handled. Donelson has done a remarkable job in bringing this portion of history back to life.

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Mad Money.