The Bush Devil Ate Sam… And Other Possible Book Titles: HELP!

Liberian bush devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Freddie the carver, a leper who lived in the up-country Liberian town of Ganta, carved this replica of the Bush Devil for me in 1965. In the 70s similar carvings would become known as Jimmy Carter dolls.

What leads people to choose a particular book is a question every author, agent and publisher asks. If my name were Stephen King or J.K. Rowling and I was writing my umpteenth best seller, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything except writing the book and raking in the dough. But being Curt Mekemson… let’s just say I have a few more challenges (grin).

I am now in the final stages of self-publishing a book on my Peace Corps experience in Africa. Making money isn’t the objective; I’m happily retired. But I do hope people will read the book. I realize that success will ultimately depend upon whether people like what I have written and tell their friends. But first I have to capture their attention.

The Writer’s Guide to Self-Publishing (and every other book that purports to tell us go-it-alone writers how to) suggests that an enticing name, great cover, compelling back copy, and dynamite first few pages are what count. Of course, an endorsement by J.K. Rowling would help, but, as they say in the vernacular, that ain’t going to happen.

I’ve decided to ask for your advice. Several of the people who read this blog are authors and all of you are avid readers. So here’s the question. Which of the following titles would capture your eye and lead you to pick up the book? Why? (You can pick more than one.)

FYI, I’ve included the back-story behind each title. Depending on the title I choose, I will use a short, spiffed up version of the story in the introduction of the book.

Thanks for your participation!

Curt

1. The Dead Chicken Dance

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Peace Corps training lacked its modern sophistication in the 1960s. Our group did its initial training at Cal State SF. We were then dropped off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with paper sleeping bags for a wilderness camping experience. During the week, we faced a number of challenges such as rock climbing, bridge building, etc. A psychologist followed us around and took notes. It was serious business. Based on our responses, we could be sent home. One of the most memorable challenges was when our leader showed up the first night with a hatchet and a crate of live chickens. “Here’s dinner,” he announced with a laugh.  You can imagine how the kids from the big cities reacted. I was a country boy, however. I had killed, plucked, and gutted chickens. So I volunteered for the messy part. My chicken did a nice little dance when I cut off her head off. The city kids turned pale. They lost their appetites when I reached into Henny Penny and yanked out her still warm innards. It was a good thing; I got more to eat.

2. The Bush Devil Ate Sam

And Other Peace Africa Corps Tales

When my first wife, Jo Ann, and I arrived in Liberia we recruited a young man to help with our chores. In return, we provided meals and funds to cover school costs and other necessities. One day, Sam was working with me outside and took off his shirt. Jo noticed that he had a series of parallel scars marching down his chest. “How did you get those?” Jo had asked, partially out of concern but mainly out of curiosity. “I can’t tell you,” Sam had blurted out. “But,” he quickly added, “I can tell Mr. Mekemson.” Aha, I thought to myself, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the men’s club. Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s club, the highly secretive Poro Society that existed to keep tribal people in line and pass on tribal culture. The year before Sam had been to bush school where he had learned the Society’s secrets. At the end of the session, he had had a close encounter with the Bush Devil. It ate him. He was swallowed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks represented the Devil’s teeth. The Bush Devil (so-named by Christian missionaries) is part politician, part cultural cop, part spiritual leader, and all secret.  Outsiders don’t get to see the Kpelle version. I was able to see one from another tribe, however. He looked like  someone had crossed a walking haystack with a voodoo nightmare.

Gbarnga photo of Curt Mekemson and Sam Kollie.

A photo of Sam and me cutting grass with machetes right around the time we noticed his scarification marks. Sam would later become a physician.

Liberian Bush Devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The Bush Devil I was allowed to see.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

3. The Lightning Man Strikes Again

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

We left Mamadee with 50 dollars to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene while we went off to explore East Africa in a Volkswagen beetle. Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep when we returned but there was no kerosene and no 50 dollars. Someone had stolen the money. Mamadee’s father, who was a chief of the Kpelle tribe, wanted to assure us (and himself?) that Mamadee was innocent so he offered to subject Mamadee to a trial by lightning. The Lightning Man had a special power; he could make lighting strike people who had committed crimes. Somebody steals your cow or your spouse, ZAP! Even if Mamadee were guilty, we didn’t want him struck by lightning, or even singed for that matter. We passed on the offer. Another Volunteer took a different approach. He had spent half of his monthly income ($70) on buying a new radio. Somebody stole it the first day. He vowed that he would get his new toy back. So he had his students take him out in the jungle to hire the Lightning Man. That night there was a horrendous lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always horrendous lightning storms, put yourself in the shoes of the person who had taken the radio and believed in the Lightning Man. Every lightning strike and every peal of thunder would have had his name on it. The next morning, the Volunteer went outside and there was his radio, sitting on the porch.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia's rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning when we were there, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia’s rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

4. How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Boy, the Bad Dog, lived at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house across town with a female dog named Lolita. When Lolita had pups, she drove Boy off. He went looking for other Peace Corps Volunteers to live with and ended up at our house. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me. But Boy had a problem: he didn’t like black people. He also regarded our cat as dinner. I encouraged him to live elsewhere. One day I came home from teaching and found a number of soldiers occupying our yard. I approached nervously; Liberian soldiers were scary. “What’s the problem?” I asked the sergeant.  “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” he growled at me. The Superintendent was the boss of Bong County, the most powerful person in our neck of the jungle. “Which one?” I asked. “What does it matter which fowl the dog ate?” he snarled. “No, no,” I responded, “I meant which dog.” He pointed at Boy and I relaxed. “Why don’t you arrest him?” I suggested helpfully. “Not him!” the sergeant screamed. “You, you are coming with us.” The interview was not going the way he had expected. “The dog doesn’t belong to me and I am not going anywhere with you.” I replied and went into our house. The soldiers were not happy. They milled around in our yard for a half hour before marching off. It was a six-pack night for Jo and I.

At 4 AM the next morning we heard a loud bang, bang, bang. “What’s that,” Jo asked, frightened. “It sounds like someone pounding to get in,” I responded, grabbing our baseball bat and heading for the back door. I opened it just as the sergeant from the day before was preparing to strike it again with the butt of his weapon. “Your dog ate another one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowls,” he stated triumphantly. “This time you are coming with us.” The soldiers must have waited up all night for Boy. Maybe they threw the fowl over the fence. Here doggy. In addition to being scared, I was angry. “I told you yesterday that the dog belongs across town. Ask Mr. Bonal.” Mr. Bonal was the principal of the high school and lived next door. I slammed the door shut. It was like I had thrown a rock at a hornet’s nest. But Bonal was an important man in town and yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his home was not something you did lightly. Eventually, the soldiers left. Jo and I waited nervously for strike three. Fortunately, the soldiers finally figured out that Boy belonged to a person who worked for the other Peace Corps Volunteer. The young man was hauled into court and fined. To pay the fine, he sold Boy to a village where the large dog became guest of honor at a tribal feast. Being a bad dog in Liberia can have serious consequences.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent's compound. The high school and the house where I lived was off to the right.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent’s headquarters. The high school and the house where I lived were off to the right of his compound.

39 comments on “The Bush Devil Ate Sam… And Other Possible Book Titles: HELP!

  1. Don and I vote for “How Boy the Bad Dog Ended up in Soup”. Don says it has a good hook to it. He laughed when I read it out loud to him. We both picked Dead Chicken Dance second but it happened before you even got to Africa so that was a bit of a strike against it. Good luck with it! Alison

    • Thanks Alison and Don. The responses are quite interesting… and, I might add varied. Boy’s story could almost be written like an obit. 🙂 The choice will be a challenge! I’ll of course do a blog on the final choice and on the responses. –Curt

  2. What incredible experiences you must’ve had. Very cool that you’re chronicling them in a book. Personally, I like The Dead Chicken Dance best. They’re all catchy, but for some reason, this one jumped out at me most. My second choice would be The Bush Devil Ate Sam. In fact, now that I see them both side by side, I like them equally. Oh, boy, that wasn’t much of a help, was it? 🙂

    • Hey, any elimination helps, Carrie. 🙂 And you look at it from a mystery writer’s perspective. Thanks. As for the experience. I’ve been lucky in my life to have numerous great experiences, but the Peace Corps certainly is one of the most significant. –Curt

  3. The Dead Chicken Dance hands down. I would pick it up and look at it. That’s as good of a title as “Getting Stoned With Savages…” which was a damn good book!

    • Thanks, Cindy. I am bemused/amused 🙂 by the different responses. And I really appreciate all of the different input. Linda suggests changing the title to a more active voice… such as “Watching the Dead Chicken Dance.” or I might add, Dead Chicken Dancing or The Dead Chicken Dances. Your thoughts? –Curt

  4. Dead Chicken Dance is great but, as Alison and Don say, it happened before you left for Liberia. Love The Lightning Man Strikes Again – can just feel the dread the Lightning Man induced. Do let us know when you make your choice.

    • Thanks AC. I had a bet with myself that you would steer clear of the Boy story. It is sad. I do have happy dog stories in the book. I promise. Do Your Part is my favorite all time dog. But there was the the time she invaded a mosque and almost caused a riot… with me on the receiving end. Hmmm. As for the Lightning Man, that is one awesome power… almost Old Testament in its nature. –Curt

  5. I would use the Dead Chicken Dance, but I’d change it from “The Dead Chicken Dance” to “Watching a Dead Chicken Dance.” Active vs passive, and all that. “The Dead Chicken Dance” feels dead to me. “Watching a Dead Chicken Dance” makes me say, “Hey! Can I watch, too?”

    Boy the Bad Dog certainly evokes all of the collections of African folk tales that are out there, and I think it’s good, too. Again, I’d change it just slightly to “How Boy the Bad Dog Ends Up As Soup”, which seems to me to add a little immediacy and piques my curiosity more.

    I love coming up with titles!

    • Thanks, Linda! I am fascinated to see people’s responses. I also appreciate your comments on active vs passive voice. The chicken story reflects the challenge of preparing people for an experience they have never had. I hadn’t thought of the tie in between Boy and African folk tales, but I see it now. When I wrote the Liberian Second Grade reader, I gathered a number of African Folk tales by interviewing young people in Gbarnga from different tribes and was impressed with both the stories and the messages. –Curt

  6. Curt, these titles are all great and we love the stories behind them. We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa – and the backstory is terrific! 🙂 ~Terri & James

  7. The Dead Chicken Dance is my favorite. It shows action from something western readers would think they recognized and they do eat it. Plus dancing has a good connotation so maybe the tone will be enjoyable and not lecturing or guilt inducing. A touch grisly plus touch of the familiar plus invitation to dance equals enigmatic. And just to press my point and underline my over-analyzation, it sounds like it comes toward the beginning of your book so it’s a way of tying up the title to give foreshadowing of the unusual stories you will tell. Second choice is The Lightning Man Strikes (but I’d leave off again). To me The Lightning Man Strikes sounds like a dark, interesting tale. The Bush Devil Ate Sam is a good story but to me who sort of follows such stuff, it’s very reminiscent of politics. How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup is also a good story but maybe too much for this dog loving country.
    P.S. Now that I’ve read what others say I’ll give you my best in choosing because they all are good ideas. But I like The Dead Chicken Dance just the way it is. Strong short and sure of itself like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner. Good luck!

    • Wow, thanks Rebecca. I love your in-depth analysis and appreciate the time you took to give me your input. If I was expecting one of the titles to quickly float to the top, I had another thought coming.:) I do think I can get Boy out of hot water and eliminate him as a title. And I found your thought on The Bush Devil Ate Sam thought provoking. The chicken seems to elicit strong responses from both sides. –Curt

      • Uh, thanks Curt, but after I plunked own on the post button I really had second thoughts like, “Wow, Rebecca why don’t you just suck the fun out of it?” Oh well, it sounds like Boy at least sunk to the bottom. Whatever you choose I’m sure it will be good and I bet a lot of people are looking forward to reading it. I know I am.

  8. I won’t be much help, Curt, as disappointed as I am to say. I’m with Galli. Am a word Nazi as you know, and the first didn’t do it for me. I simply wouldn’t spend my time or money on a book by such a title. It’s on the silly side. and I know what you offer inside your pages is rich. I skipped right over to 2. It is the most cogent, the most compelling. At least by sound, which is what you want in a title. Love the voodoo description, and the pic of YOU…wow….way back, huh? =)

  9. Thanks Diana. Picture? Yesterday of course. (grin) Let’s just say it was a few pounds and pant’s sizes ago. This title thing is ending up to be quite a horse race. Never let it be said that the people I follow and who follow me lack opinions. I love it! And all of the arguments are thoughtful. Each one makes me rethink my proposed titles. I actually had many more but had to stop somewhere. The chicken thing was actually a shock tactic. How do you judge the way a person will react when he or she is dropped into a totally different world than the one they had experienced? BTW, I once asked Sam, the young man who worked for us, to pick up a chicken for dinner while Jo and I were away visiting a friend. I came home and the chicken was roosting on our stove. 🙂 Curt

  10. I’m torn between the first and second suggestion for a title – leaning toward #2. Great stories no matter what you call it, that’s for sure!

  11. Oh goodness..You tossed out some hard choices because any one of them could carry this book successfully. After alot of flipping a coin my choice is:

    The Lightning Man Strikes Again

    I like it because it has a double entendre..Is it about someone else or are you the lightning man helping to bring change to Africa..
    Can’t wait to read your follow up post!

  12. I loved all the stories but my favorite title is The Lightning Man Strikes Again. I usually choose books by the title and I’d pick that one up just because of the sound of it. Lightning is fascinating anyway and the title sounds interesting and humorous, which goes perfectly with those stories. I’ve always wanted to join the Peace Corps and can’t wait to read this now.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Sheila. A lot of people agree with you. It is becoming something of a foot race between the Bush Devil and the Lightning Man, both of whom are fascinating characters within Liberia’s tribal cultures. –Curt

  13. After reading and listening to other’s thoughts, it helped to shape my own. I was going back and forth between the Bush Devil Ate Sam and The Lightening Man as you know. Both are a reminder of the challenges of integrating the power of tribalism and pulling together a country for the good of the whole, no small feat as we see again and again. However, I am leaning toward the Bush Devil Ate Sam as I have met Sam, a doctor trained in the American University system, highly educated, yet “marked” by his right of passage to manhood. Conflicts abound….perplexing. I have to admit that I would pick up the book no matter….grin. Peggy

    • Well said Peggy. I like your further comments on Sam and the challenges of nation building amidst tribalism. They are very perceptive. And I know you’ll pick up the book, grin-back, since it has only been written with your loving, and much appreciated support.
      –Curt

  14. I like the Dead Chicken Dance. It indicates how ready you were for the adventure. Not just the country background and experience to make the kids from the suburbs and city shrink in disgust and get in at the front end of a “Diet for a Small Planet,” but in the way that you took the lead. You were there to help the other students through the day and on to meeting their dream of joining the Peace Corps. Your reasons for joining the Peace Corps were likely driven by a young man’s readiness for adventure, but also touched by a desire to help others. I suspect that the others in your Sierra campsite and those you encountered in Africa all realized the generosity of your spirit and kindness of your heart.

    Anyway, good luck with the title selection. I don’t know how to break through with a book in this day and age, unless you have a surname such as Clinton, Rowling or Winfrey, but I do know that your book would be widely-read and enjoyed if folks knew about it and took five minutes to start reading.

    • Thanks Bruce. In addition to knowing a thing or two about chickens, I and been raised in the foothills. The week was like a vacation. For others, it was more of a challenge.

      Today, training is done in country. Each volunteer lives with a host family. There is a true taste of what the Volunteers will experience.

      It’s going to be a hard choice. I’ve been able to remove Boy from the running, but the other three are each receiving a lot of support with good input.

      –Curt

  15. “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is definately my favorite; short, catchy, intriguing, and feels more encompassing of a collection of African stories than the others… (though I eventually want to read your follow on book about decades of backpacking/ camping National Parks entitled “The Dead Chicken Dance”!). I like “The Lightning Man Strikes Again” second, but not quite as catchy and thematic as “Bush Devil” (which shifts my mind right to images of Africa!)… And “Lightning Man” does ring a bit towards a Fantasy/Fiction feel (even though the back story is a bit of native fantasy fixtion, heh… Its an awesome story and should definately be included!!!)

    Love, Tony

    • Thanks Tony. I really like your reasons here. The ability of the title to suggest an African theme is important. I smiled at your Lighting Man comment… something like the Lightening Thief. 🙂 And yes, the Lightning Man is already in the book! Curt

  16. I read all of the stories to the boys and there was a unanimus vote for The Lightning Man Strikes Again. Very catchy and a fun story!

  17. Hmm, I’m a bit after the fair, but here are my thoughts. First, I might well pick up a book the had Peace Corps up front, but I probably wouldn’t pick out one that had the above titles unless the Peace Corps was in very big letters, simply because they sound umm… sort of frivolous? That said… the one that was most immediately appealing was the Lightning Man Strikes Again and the most intriguing was The Bush Devil Ate Sam. Titles are, as you already know, seriously tricky. No potential buyer (friends excepted) is going to know the back story. So titles fight and die or win on just their own few words and weird things, like the shape/sound/familiarity/frequency of the word(s), all matter to our confused human brains. I know all these things and I still cannot make good titles myself – best of luck.

    • Thanks Hilary. And I know there is both an art and a science to title writing, sigh. Like headlines for a newspaper. One advantage to having agents and publishers is the expertise they bring to the table. I have been very impressed with the input I have received on the post, however. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I now have lots to think about. –Curt

  18. Lol. Found the story… finally. And I’m late, too, Curt. Sorry… But since I’m late, I’d say shorter the better… and that none would say to me, “Look at Me” on the shelf…? Just my three yen – one yen for being tardy, sir.

  19. Pingback: A Devilishly Hard Decision… The Title to My Peace Corps Africa Book | Wandering through Time and Place

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