Mambo Point is the story of twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle who moves to Monrovia, Liberia in 1982 when his dad gets a job at the US Embassy there. A highly anxious kid, Linus hopes for a chance to reinvent himself in a new place (something I, an academic brat who moved frequently as a child, totally identified with). When they first arrive the family has a dramatic encounter with a black mamba snake, mambas being among the most deadly snakes of the region. Once in their new apartment Linus sees a black mamba everywhere. He then learns about kasengs, a belief that people can have special mysterious connections to animals. As the story goes on it appears that this is the case with Linus and his black mamba.
Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Sierra Leone a few years before this story takes place and having spent my 7th grade year on the fringe of US embassy culture in Germany I can say that those aspects of the setting are very authentically rendered. From the houseboy (as offensive as the term sounds that is what the household servants were called when I lived in Sierra Leone) to the curio seller and the music of that time and place, Scaletta’s 1982 Monrovia felt remarkably like my 1976 Freetown. I did wonder about the parents seeming lack of interest in the local culture, but as I think about it I recall that sort of situation both in Sierra Leone and in Germany. That is, US Embassy staff in both 1965 Germany and 1976 Freetown were highly isolated from the countries in which they resided. In both places I recall a great effort to replicate America as much as possible.
Linus is an appealing protagonist and the interactions with “his” snake are gripping as are his complex relationships with his older brother and the few other kids he encounters. There is a lot going on the book — cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings, some incredibly exciting and dramatic scenes, magic of the African sort, peer and sibling relationships — a powerful coming-of-age story. An interesting, compelling, and different read, well worth checking out.