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Making a family in one of earth's most formidable places

As the Mugabe government turned hostile, an American journalist scrambled to adopt a little girl

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Every adoption of a child, like all momentous events in people's lives, has profound and moving elements. Sometimes they're worthy of a book, but they're not always worthy of a broad audience.

"Love in the Driest Season," at its core, is adoption literature. So, yes, it has the requisite tear-jerking moments. But there's more. Because of its epic weave - of African cultures and politics; AIDS and its destruction; and the interracial marriage of the author from a white racist Mississippi background and his wife from black Detroit - this story about the adoption of a tiny, critically ill Zimbabwean orphan appeals to the head as much as the heart.

In 1997, just about the time that American journalist Neely Tucker and his wife, Vita, arrived at his new assignment in Harare, a newborn baby, swarmed over by ants that had devoured part of her ear, was found under an acacia tree in the highlands of Zimbabwe.

The AIDS epidemic was in full bloom at that point, leaving 10 million children orphaned in Africa. Chipo, as an orphanage administrator named her with the Shona word meaning "gift," was almost certainly the child of an HIV-infected parent. And, as statistics and conventional wisdom dictated, everyone believed Chipo was probably infected, too. This and the fact that adoption by foreigners was technically, if not legally, forbidden by President Robert Mugabe's nationalistic bureaucracy create an uncomfortable but compelling vise of suspense.

As the Tuckers settled into life in Harare, they decided to volunteer to work with orphans. Adoption was a distant goal but the idea, at first, was just to take babies home for weekend love and care, possibly leading to fostering, and later, maybe, adoption.

But as anyone who has ever adopted knows, once you touch a child's hand, look into her eyes, or catch the scent of his warmth, there's rarely any retreat from further engagement. In the Tuckers' case, it took only two grueling orphanage visits. After leaving the first without attaching to a child, Neely says, "I feel like I just kicked six kids off a lifeboat for the Titanic."

"And held them underwater, for a while," Vita adds.

It was Neely who first saw Chipo - mistaking her for a newborn, when in fact she was a sickly 3-month-old - down to 4-1/2 pounds, and losing. There's a moment in an adoptive parent's experience when the abstraction of the concept takes visceral, spiritual, and emotional hold, and this was it for him.

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