There are stories of wild tigers living in the camps of Jungle Indians, fading off when strangers approach, and stories of baboons joining in the games of Kaffir boys—games of a ferocity you would not risk with an Alsatian. All incredible stories. Yet Joy Adamson's story belongs with these. Living Free describes her continued friendship with the lioness, Elsa, while Elsa lived wild, had a wild mate and reared three cubs. During this period Joy Adamson kept a diary of Elsa's comings and goings and took photographs of her regularly, then worked that material up into a book. The diary tone is still evident, and in just glancing at one page you would wonder how this rather abrupt, condensed notation of disparate observations can carry you along for 135 pages without your special effort. As it turns out, though, one of the excellences of the book is its powerful large momentum: the casual succession of events forms a single and in the end deeply moving story. The fact that we know of Elsa's eventual fate gives the whole unfolding virtually a tragic weight.
Living Free is the perfect kind of children's book. It has the ideal ingredients: close friendship with a wild animal, particularly with a lion, baby lions in their day-to-day growing up, a baby elephant, many curious encounters, villains, suspense, a bit of practical magic for power over crocodiles, a passionately involved narrator, beautiful photographs, and it all really happened. But more than that it has genuine educational virtues: clear, firm, vivid prose, sensitive observation, courage and patience, intense sympathy for life, no padding, no details politely muffed. All this is its very least value.
It is also a painstaking piece of wild-life observation, where the opportunities were unique. Several legends about lions are disproved, such as that when the lioness is hungry the cubs have to wait for their meal until she's finished, or that the tamest of lions will go wild at the first whiff of blood. Several strange facts are noted, as that a lioness's teats are retractile, even when they are heavy with milk, presumably so they won't get in her way when she's hunting. And every page adds to one's sense of how lions in the bush really live—perhaps because here one is looking over the lion's shoulder day after day, as a friend, almost in fact as another lion, rather than confronting it for a few seconds as a suspicious or desperate enemy. Most interesting of all, though, this book presents an intelligent lioness, in her wild state, throughout the most important and most secretive episode of her natural life, managing a friendship—and Elsa is the manager—with a human being….
It isn't so much that Elsa shows recognisably human qualities as that she shows a subtle, civilised understanding of how two utterly alien communities can live together and go on liking each other….
In this, the book has general significance. That a lioness, one of the great moody aggressors, should be brought to display such qualities as Elsa's, is a step not so much in the education of lions as in the civilisation of men. And insofar as it is more important to throw one's energy into forming traditions of kindness and summoning a spirit of sympathetic understanding, even in the smallest things, rather than exercising any further the overdeveloped weapons of the hands and the head, this book is a small gospel.
Ted Hughes, "Books in General: 'Living Free'," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXII, No. 1600, November 10, 1961, p. 712.
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[There] is something rather mysterious about the extent of Mrs. Adamson's impact on her readers. Certainly the lion is a good subject and the story well told; but there have been other similar lion books … and this domesticated lion is far from being unique. What is Mrs. Adamson's secret?
For some readers it is the tender relationship between Mrs. Adamson and Elsa that holds the key. [In Living Free] is a drama of a mother with a symbolic leonine child, its power and stature outgrowing its parent's, making it dangerous and yet still loving. Then follows the tragic necessity for the spoilt child to face its independence in a hostile world—then its success, and finally its return to show off the grandchildren to the delighted grandparents. Mrs. Adamson was probably not conscious of this symbolic aspect of her story, but it is certain that at least half of her book's appeal resulted from it. With this approach we are almost back to [Rudyard] Kipling, but with the great difference that Mrs. Adamson's anecdotes are not distorted to suit the demands of human sentimentality. With Elsa's story, indeed, this is not necessary.
Other readers are caught up, perhaps, in yet another accidental allegory. In contemporary thinking Africa belongs to its native inhabitants, the Negroes and the wild animals. If the lion is thought of as a natural representative of the African fauna and is symbolically equated with the African Negro, then these books take on a new meaning. The handrearing of Elsa symbolizes the white responsibility for Africa and the European training of the Negro populations. Her release into the bush becomes the hazardous experiment of national independence. There Born Free ends. Will the Africans be able to cope with the situation, will they remain loyal to Europe while at the same time accepting the challenge of their own environment? Living Free suggests the answer. The mother brings back her cubs and shows them off proudly. All is well, and everyone sighs with relief. The future of Africa is assured. But the colonial official who closes the book contentedly has perhaps missed the publishers' sinister note on the last page. It tells us that, when Elsa died a month after the book was completed, her cubs ran amok, slaughtering domestic animals, and had to be caught and deported to a game park. This is the biggest sting in the tail of any book the reviewer has read.
"Life with the Lions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1961; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3121, December 22, 1961, p. 918.