This novel is set in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Fourteen-year-old Lettie Venter is the narrator. Her Oupa Gideon, Vader, and older brother (Schalk) are off fighting when the British arrive and burn down their farm. Lettie, her Moeder, younger brother (Willem), and baby sister (Cecilia) are taken to an internment camp where they are housed in crowded tents. Lettie describes the deplorable conditions in which they live; people die of disease because of poor sanitation and malnutrition. One of the only positive aspects of Lettie’s time in the camp is the friendship she has with a young British guard, Thomas Maples.
In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel. Lettie is an intelligent, curious child, always asking questions: “others thought me a pest with my questions.” Her mother describes her as “’helping with the chores when she can get away from her reading and studies. . . . Her mind works so hard you can watch it from the outside’” and her father teases her about her “’dozen questions and then silence.’” Her experiences cause her to question what she has been taught. In the camp, she often thinks about her grandfather and father “speaking their favorite phrases, repeating their themes, the ones I’d heard for years, the ones I accepted without question.” Now she asks, “But if we have no dominion over our lives, Oupa, why strive to be righteous? If we have no part in our fate, what is the point?”
Her friendship with Maples has her learning more about the enemy. Maples forces Lettie to see the British as individuals who are not all like those who destroyed her home. Maples gifts her a copy of David Copperfield and she starts to think of the protagonist as a real person: “He was British, but the war had not been his fault.” She realizes she and David share similarities: “I liked David and felt . . . what? Akin. That’s the word” and “Our lives on the farm were hard in many ways. But not like David’s. And he seemed such a goodhearted little, doing his best, trying to see the good in people. I did not see how David could be an enemy of my country.” And she learns that Maples is as unhappy in the camp as she is; she comes to realize his “desire to back away from the savagery of the war.” The two years Lettie spends in the camp force her to grow up; at the end, she realizes she is “a different person – far closer to the woman I would become than to the little girl I had been.”
Because the narrator is young, there is much that she does not understand. The reader often sees the significance of statements that she does not. For instance, Lettie does not understand about her mother’s pregnancy. Comments that an adult might question, she dismisses; for example, Schalk comments that “’Oupa is hard on [Oom Sarel]. Never lets up. Doesn’t seem to matter what he does.’” This suggests an underlying animosity that explains much about Oom Sarel’s behaviour though Lettie does not come to understand until much later. Of course, having a young person as a narrator serves to emphasize the horrors of life in the camp.
I enjoy books that shed light on historical events. This one shines a spotlight on the Anglo-Boer war and the mistreatment of women and children during the conflict: “twenty-two thousand Boer children died in British concentration camps – more than the combined fatalities among soldiers on both sides. It wasn’t on the scale of the Holocaust, nor was it of genocidal intent, but it was nevertheless a twentieth-century atrocity – a war against children – that has been largely forgotten.”
The portrayal of the Boers is sometimes idealized. Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted at the beginning: “[The Boers] must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth” and it seems that Boling shares this opinion. Conan Doyle wrote about the Boers’ “dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism”; in the novel, Oupa, with his “immense faith” is the former and Vader, with his unrelenting behaviour even in defeat, is the latter. I appreciated that Maples tries to show Lettie that the Boers are not guiltless; they took land from the Zulus and fought wars: “’Oh . . . were [the natives] happy you showed up? Did they welcome you? I doubt it. See, we’re not so different.’” And anyone with knowledge of future events in South Africa will note the very telling comment at the end when a native woman is asked about her people and she replies, “’I don’t know . . . A beaten dog will someday bare its teeth.’”
This is a book I would recommend. It includes a young narrator (who may remind readers of Anne Frank, another intelligent writer-in-the-making) and shows her growing into an admirable woman. There are also other well-developed and memorable characters, Tante Hannah being one of my favourites. The book also highlights historical events probably not known to many people but events that should not be hidden.