Summary and book reviews of True At First Light by Ernest Hemingway

True At First Light

By Ernest Hemingway

True At First Light
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  • Hardcover: Jul 1999,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2000,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

Both a revealing self-portrait and dramatic fictional chronicle of his final African safari, Ernest Hemingway's last unpublished work was written when he returned from Kenya in 1953. Edited by his son Patrick, who accompanied his father on the safari, True at First Light offers rare insights into the legendary American writer in the year of the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

A blend of autobiography and fiction, the book opens on the day his close friend Pop, a celebrated hunter, leaves Ernest in charge of the safari camp and news arrives of a potential attack from a hostile tribe. Drama continues to build as his wife, Mary, pursues the great black-maned lion that has become her obsession. Spicing his depictions of human longings with sharp humor, Hemingway captures the excitement of big-game hunting and the unparalleled beauty of the scenery -- the green plains covered with gray mist, zebra and gazelle traversing the horizon, cool dark nights broken by the sounds of the hyena's cry.

As the group at camp help Mary track her prize, she and Ernest suffer the "incalculable casualties of marriage," and their attempts to love each other well are marred by cruelty, competition and infidelity. Ernest has become involved with Debba, an African girl whom he supposedly plans to take as a second bride. Increasingly enchanted by the local African community, he struggles between the attraction of these two women and the wildly different cultures they represent.

In True at First Light, Hemingway also chronicles his exploits -- sometimes hilarious and sometimes poignant -- among the African men with whom he has become very close, reminisces about encounters with other writers and his days in Paris and Spain and satirizes, among other things, the role of organized religion in Africa. He also muses on the act of writing itself and the author's role in determining the truth. What is fact and what is fiction? This is a question that was posed by Hemingway's readers throughout his career and is one of his principal subjects here.

Equally adept at evoking the singular textures of the landscape, the thrill of the hunt and the complexities of married life, Hemingway weaves a tale that is rich in laughter, beauty and profound insight. True at First Light is an extraordinary publishing event -- a breathtaking final work from one of America's most beloved and important writers.

From Chapter One

Things were not too simple in this safari because things had changed very much in East Africa. The white hunter had been a close friend of mine for many years. I respected him as I had never respected my father and he trusted me, which was more than I deserved. It was, however, something to try to merit. He had taught me by putting me on my own and correcting me when I made mistakes. When I made a mistake he would explain it. Then if I did not make the same mistake again he would explain a little more. But he was nomadic and he was finally leaving us because it was necessary for him to be at his farm, which is what they call a twenty-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Kenya. He was a very complicated man compounded of absolute courage, all the good human weaknesses and a strangely subtle and very critical understanding of people. He was completely dedicated to his family and his home and he loved much more to live away from them. He loved his home and his wife and his ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Hemingway completed just one draft of True at First Light, and after his death it remained under lock and key for decades. Did these circumstances affect the way you read the book? How should True at First Light be judged within Hemingway's complete canon of work? If he had finished writing and editing book himself, in what ways might it have been different?

  2. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of True at First Light is Hemingway's purported "marriage" to Debba. Do you believe that this relationship is truthfully rendered, or one of the "fictionalized" elements of this memoir? Could Debba be an amalgamation of a few different women? A metaphor for Hemingway's love of Africa itself?

  3. On the surface, Hemingway ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Newsweek - David Gates

A major literary event. In addition to the book's intrinsic pleasures, it provides a new window into the tantalizing, unsettling, oceanic world of his experimental, unfinished late work.

Newsweek - David Gates

A major literary event. In addition to the book's intrinsic pleasures, it provides a new window into the tantalizing, unsettling, oceanic world of his experimental, unfinished late work.

Publishers Weekly

A sometimes entertaining, sometimes trying read.

Library Journal

Twentieth-century American literature could not end on a brighter note than the publication of this book.

Library Journal

Twentieth-century American literature could not end on a brighter note than the publication of this book.

Reader Reviews
mischelle

it is slow moving boring and not my style

bwanamitch

I am nearing 61. I belive that Papa was about 62 when he ate the lead.

Now treatable, then ignored, alcohol got Popa. Bwana Mouse, his son, Patrick, did a great job in licking his father's papers into a well connected book. (Read into. carefully.) ...   Read More

Martinez Santiago

True at First Light is a novel written from edited manuscript by not even Ernest Hemingway, but his own son Patrick and arguably whether this is its fault, the book remains unconnected, pointless and unfinished. To say it is a good read is a joke ...   Read More

Vivienne Seaman

I had not read any Hemingway since High School. Shame on me.

I did not want this book to end. I love it, haven't read anything better in years.

Hemingway loved life, his wife Mary, and Africa. He was honest to a fault, unafraid to divulge his true ...   Read More

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