The Meerkat Wars by H.S. Toshack reminds me of the masterpiece Watership Down by Richard Adams, which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite books for children. In that hefty novel, along with appreciating the adventures of the fugitives, I also reveled in how intimately I came to know the world of rabbits. While I sometimes disagreed with the beliefs of the rabbits, I also appreciated the thematic complexity of Watership Down. By the same token, I love how intimately H. S. Toshack portrays the world of meerkats and a certain house cat named Sheena, who together face issues similar to that of our world’s own warring tribes.
Foremost, as the title suggests, The Meerkat Wars is an adventure story. No sooner than Sheena escapes a scorpion bite, she finds herself rescuing a meerkat from a honey badger. When this valiant act leads her to an entire meerkat tribe, Sheena discovers more adventure than she could have imagined. For example, this particular meerkat tribe share one side of their underground tunnels with porcupines. These tunnels can also be innocently trampled upon by buffalo. Sadly, because of its commentary on our own human world, most of Sheena’s escapades occur when her new friends are attacked by another meerkat tribe. Just as the fugitives in Watership Down discover that both pleasure and hardship exist on the road, Sheena discovers that Baragandiri National Park is full of fun and friends but also of danger, pain, and enemies.
That author H.S. Toshack spent ten years in Africa shows in his detailed descriptions of the meerkat. Yet it is to his credit that he delivers these descriptions in tantalizing morsels, rather than overwhelming us with a flood of observations. As such, at first we simply learn that meerkat are about Sheena’s size, except more slender, and that their fur is mid-brown in color with darker brown bars across their backs. While Sheena watches two meerkat react to a scorpion bite, Toshack elaborates on the appearance of the meerkat: their heads are long and thin and sit on their necks “at right angles like the carved handle of a walking stick,” and their fur is so short and even that they look as if it were a “close military crew cut”. Of course, it’s not their appearance that makes the meerkat come alive to readers but their interactions. When Pebble is stung by a scorpion, Sandstepper starts lists off the symptoms of a reaction to poison as if delivering a lecture. Pebble is so on cue in his display of them that I begin to believe as Sheena that he is a victim of his own imagination. I laugh, until Sheena realizes two things: Pebble is dying; He will need her to carry him back to the meerkat den. By now these quick-talking and high-pitched meerkat have grown on me, but I have more to learn. When the three arrive at their destination, they spy atop the largest mound a “tall, upright figure, with pointed head and face”. When the sand explodes, ten similar animals burst out, stand in the same posture, and begin to behave in the exact way. They scratch, dig, jump, and snarl all in unison, presenting a great vicious show. Yet it is only a show, designed to frighten off intruders. Toshack seems to know meerkat as well as most of us know cats and dogs. No wonder that, just as when reading Watership Down, I slowed down to savor the natural world vividly depicted in The Meerkat Wars.
Fortunately, The Meerkat Wars is not the stale treatise of a naturalist. Like Adams, the animals that Toschack portrays are extremely personable. For starters, there is Sheena. Toshack had a cat like her when he lived in the Caribbean and even later when he moved to Africa. His stories center foremost on the exploits that she might have encountered on safari. His adoration of her is apparent, in how perfectly her viewpoint carries the entire story, but that’s not to say her fictional counterpart is a perfect cat. Sheena’s whole escapade happens because instead of staying safely tucked away back home she stows away on her human family’s Land Rover and then wanders off in Baragandiri National Park. Consequently, although Sheena had spent most of her life “trying to make sure she would end a fat cat,” she spends her first day talking to a creature with a creaky and scratchy voice. This creature turns out to be a scorpion, which tries to poison her with its tail. One adventure leads to another, most of which involve the meerkat and some of which feature a badger, buffalo, a chameleon, hyenas, porcupines, an elephant, and even wild cats. As for the meerkat, the focus is on Pebble who almost dies and later is taken captive by a warring meerkat tribe. It is also on Sandstepper, who mentors Pebble and is almost attacked by a badger. We also meet Tuft and Moon who are leaders of this tribe of Meerkat, Shuffle who betrays his tribe, and eventually others from the enemy tribe. By the way, besides identifying one another by smell and voice, the meerkat also have distinguishing features by which they give each other names. When Pebble was younger, his lips and tongue didn’t work well together; the female caretakers made him keep a pebble in his mouth, which helped him better produce sounds. Although eventually he was able to take the pebble out of his mouth, the name of Pebble stuck. Of course, I can’t imagine this really happens amongst meerkat, but this story makes Pebble more real to me. All Toshack’s inventive stories make the animals of Baragandiri National Park feel as unique to me as my own family and friends.
There’s one last way in which The Meerkat Wars resembles Watership Down. While Adams has contended that Watership Down was never intended to be an allegory, The Meerkat Wars did begin as a reaction to the wars that Toshack read or heard about in the news. It is also promoted as a story that will tell you “some new things about how animals (and people) behave”. For that reason, as you read The Meerkat Wars, you may find yourself wondering what the solution to spiritual strife should be.
Whether or not you agree with Sheena’s masterful plans for peace, you will hopefully find The Meerkat Wars in eloquent and quirky tale of adventure. I love this book and am already looking forward to reading the two earlier tales of Sheena’s adventures in Africa. The Meerkat Wars deserves to become an animal classic.
Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2013.