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Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie

‘Olive the Lionheart’: Roar or Whimper?

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Olive the Lionheart: Lost Love, Imperial Spies, and One Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Africa (St. Martin’s Press, 2020)

By Brad Ricca


In 1910, a strong-willed, flame-haired Scottish woman travels to Africa in search of her missing fiancé. Olive MacLeod was engaged to Boyd Alexander, one of the most famed naturalists of his time. When Boyd’s work leads him to Africa – and he goes missing – Olive teams up with explorers Mr. and Mrs. Talbot and sets out to find him.

What follows is the true story of the Talbot expedition across 2,700 miles of Africa. It made history.

Large chunks of the story are told by Olive herself through the extensive use of her diaries and correspondence. Included are detailed, vivid descriptions of Africa – its flora and fauna, tribes and villages and mind-melting heat. Bats. Rampaging hippos and crocodiles. Snake bites. Villages and chiefs and colonial powers vying for control.


The circumstances surrounding Boyd Alexander’s death remain shrouded in mystery. What was an ornithologist doing in Africa in the first place? Or, “Why would a soft-spoken naturalist go to Dar Fur to negotiate a slavery treaty with a bloodthirsty sultan”? Were Boyd Alexander, Olive and the Talbots unwitting spies for the British?


  • Casting Olive as Boyd Alexander’s “fiancé” seems a bit of a stretch, at least by modern standards. She rejected his marriage proposal before he left for Africa and neither one clearly stated, either verbally or by letter, their intent to marry the other. In fact, while Olive copies Boyd’s diaries after his death, she’s struck by the fact that a man who wrote so much on a daily basis wrote to her so little. She’s only mentioned once in his diaries. And so on.
  • Also, the thing about Olive writing nightly diary entries to her dead “fiancé”? What?

Style & Structure

While each chapter is prefaced by a staccato summary, the narrative itself sometimes bogs down in a swamp of loquaciousness, moving with the alacrity of a three-toed sloth. It also seems disjointed in places. To be fair, this may be due to interruptions in reading. The result was frequent, jolting stops-and-starts.

I decided to give it another chance. Happily, the story gathers steam toward the end.

But it lost me again on page 332 when Olive’s sister, Flora, inexplicably decides to poison Olive’s dog after the 1936 death of its mistress. What kind of piece of crap does that to a dog??!!

Bottom line: This is a meticulously researched, mildly interesting account of an early 20th century safari into Africa and surrounding questions about people, politics, and power that remain largely unanswered.

Our Rating: 3.0

African sunset image credit: Public domain

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