Stones for My Father
Stones for My Father.
Toronto, Ont.: Tundra Books, 2011. $19.95,
ISBN 9781770492523 / 1770492526.
Note: Corlie Roux lives with her family on a farm in South Africa, but after her father dies, Corlie is left with her mother, who is as cruel to her as she is kind to Corlie's brothers, and the British have begun their invasion to remove families like hers from the Transvaal. Corlie will have to rely on inner strength and an unexpected alliance with a Canadian soldier while she is stuck in an internment camp.
The Genocidal Treatment of the Boers
In Stones for my Father novelist Trilby Kent reveals the way South African Boers were targets for large-scale extermination during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and how Africans were maligned and oppressed by the Boers. Through the eyes of twelve-year-old Corlie Roux, the narrator, we trace the suffering of Boer farmers; for example, the "scorched earth" strategy that allowed British troops to seize livestock, poison wells, destroy reservoirs, bury salt in the soil, and burn homes. The horrifying conditions in a British concentration camp make up the second half of the novel. A fleeting picture of the Dutch occupation of Africa is discernible in this statement: "[T]he only English words I knew were gold, farm and church. Those were the words that summed up the history of my country" (13). This child's insights are thoroughly on track: gold-related tensions escalated after 1884 when the largest gold field in the world was discovered in the Transvaal Republic; farm land became increasingly under Dutch and English control as San and Khoikhoi populations were decimated; the South African Dutch Reformed Church did extend its support to European colonizers and their domination of African people.
The Boers called the war "The Second War of Liberation," the first having been the "Anglo-Transvaal War" in 1880-1881 (Kent, 13; Lowry, 4). In the second armed conflict there was a strategy for depriving Boers of food as well as essential medical treatment. These were war measures with staggering implicationswith consequences (e.g., high death rates) that caused an "immense scandal" in the British Parliament (Denoon, 115). In fact, the public responded with outrage in many different parts of the world.
While Kent is acquainting readers with Boer (Afrikaner) history and racism, her child-centered plotline emphasizes British atrocities and an ongoing mother/daughter conflict. The white supremacy myth is ever present in the conversations of Corlie's mother and her neighborsconversations degrading Africans, Indians, and Asian laborers (66). It is also noticeable in local customs, as when an African child is chosen to be a playmate for a Boer child and the relationship is abruptly severed when children approach their teenage years. Corlie has such a friend in Sipho, the African boy whose family constitutes the work force on the Roux's farm. But Corlie tells us: " . . . my mother said that it wasn't proper for me to spend so much time with Sipho" (16). Corlie's mother (now a widow) has begun the process of separating Corlie and Sipho when a contingent of British soldiers burns her farm. (Throughout the war British combatants will burn 30,000 farm houses [Lowry, 8]). The English commandant, Field Marshall Lord Roberts, calls the plan necessary: "'Unless the people generally are made to suffer for the misdeeds of those in arms against us, the war will never end" (Meredith, 450, emphasis added). In any case, Corlie and her family escape by a hair's-breadth. Farmers were able to save very little besides their children and a small food supply as they joined their wagons to similar onesall continually on the move as a way to avoid combat zones. Sipho and his mother and sisters are escaping with the Roux family, while Sipho's father has already left home to fight the British. To help the war effort, Sipho scouts in the forest to spot potential threats, but he is caught by a Boer who thinks he is sneaking away to join the Zulus. This man severely beats him and Sipho will ultimately kill him with his fish knife as the fight with British soldiers rages around him. The battle is brief and Sipho is placed under arrest and moved to a camp for prisoners of war. The white women and children are taken to concentration camps, while Siphos' mother and sisters are placed in a concentration camp for Africans. Historians have routinely described the South African camps for Boer civilians as "concentration camps"; the British called them "voluntary refugee camps" (Kent, 90).
Inhumane conditions are described in detail. In Corlie's tent city it was not unusual for two occupants to die in a single tent in a single day. Inadequate food rations were the norm, and the food was typically maggot-infested. Gangs of children fought for "every last grain" that fell to the ground (95), and Corlie soon learned the art of hustling: "I tried to choose mothers whose children had died, as they were more likely to take pity and now had fewer mouths to feed. By the second week, I was taking food from six different women, none of whom knew that I was being fed by the others" (116). A six-year-old African orphan has been allowed to remain with her Boer "owners" and is locked in a trunk as punishment for stealing food. She is perceived as an incorrigible thief. As one resident commented, " . . . all Africans were alike, more animal than human, and an animal's instinct is to scavenge for food . . . ." (117). In addition to producing dangerous levels of malnutrition, the soldiers in charge forbade the collection of medicinal plants even when they grew close to the camp's fence. "Refugees" (i.e., family members whose men folk had surrendered) had better treatment than others, as when their rations included real milk and an occasional potato (97). Corlie and her brothers were not so lucky since they are the "Undesirables": the children of captured Boers or those killed by British combatants. Approximately 22,000 Boer children and 4,000 women died in the camps (Kent, 169-170; Lowry, 2).
In the concluding pages the novelist ties plot strands together. When Corlie's brother dies, Corlie is ousted from the tent and subjected to her mother's unabashed animosity: "I wish you had never been born, Coraline Roux!" (127). We will soon receive inside information about this mother/daughter estrangement, and we will encounter again a Canadian who earlier in the war had refrained from capturing Corlie; he had signaled her with a nod: "Go. Go while you can" (34). In general, Kent's reporting of the war is harsh but not at odds with history. For example, 14,000 Africans die in camps that are even more dangerous than those designed for whites (160). Sipho will soon be executed as a murderer. After the war there is only this grain of hope: Corlie will never again live with her mother. The Canadiannow recovering from a war woundis portrayed as the one who will become her guardian.
The novelist accelerates her pace with some hastily described plot developments, but the effect is not conspicuously abrupt. Kent has consistently employed an economical style, and since her goal is apparently obtained once the story of British genocide has been told, she shifts her attention to a swift ending. What remains less clear in the novel is the degree to which Boer culpability is an intrinsic part of the Boer War, and a reader's understanding can be improved if teachers will help fill in the gap. Kenyan historian Bethwell Ogot notes that "the war between Boer and Britain marked a truce in the undeclared war between black and white. . . . Neither side wanted the Africans to fight, but . . . Afrikaners did not want African participation because it was more important to them to keep Africans subjugated than to fight against the British" (5). In Kent's tale racist terminology is typically the means used for identifying prejudiced Boers (e.g., "kaffir"a common epithet used by Westerners is repeated frequently). But Kent makes clear that she does not condone either stereotyping or exploitation; her protagonist clearly hates the mistreatment of Africans although she has grown up in its midst. Close connections with Sipho and his mother have become uppermost in her life.
By employing a twelve-year-old narrator, Kent necessarily oversimplifies wartime relations between the English and Dutch, and leaves but little space for an African cast or viewpoint. Yet despite the complexities that readers will need to pursue elsewhere, this novel is recommended for the distance it travels. An actual, harrowing struggle has been illumined. Atrocities aimed at civilians have been depicted and not glossed over. Genocide, according to a United Nations Resolution, is the denial of the right of existence for "an entire human group." Applying this definition to the Anglo-Boer War, we need only state that the conflict ended because Afrikaners realized they would likely be exterminated as a people. "[T]he consideration which compelled them to come to terms was not a military one, . . . but the risk of the destruction of Afrikaners as a people in the concentration camps . . . ." (Denoon, 120, Meredith, 467). Kent fleshes out this destruction by examining the way genocide was among the weapons used by Great Britain in an imperial war.
Denoon, Donald. "Participation in the 'Boer War'; People's War, People's Non-War, or Non-People's War?" In War and Society in Africa: Ten Studies. Ed. Bethwell A. Ogot. London: Frank Cass, 1972: 109-122.
Lowry, Donal, ed. "Introduction" in The South African War Reappraised. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2000: 1-22. .
Meredith, Martin. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa. New York: Public Affairs, 2007. .
Ogot, Bethwell A. ed. "Introduction." In War and Society in Africa: Ten Studies. London: Frank Cass, 1972: 1-6.
Published in Africa Access Review (February 25, 2012)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
||Grade: M / H
Reviewed by: Donnarae MacCann
Subject: South Africa / Historical Fiction / Sankofa