A while back, I learned about a new book tour. More specifically, it was a book tour that would be taking place entirely in the, as they say, ‘blogosphere’. This isn’t the first blog book tour that’s ever been done, but it’s the first one I’ve got to take part in. Now, let’s just step back and think about this for a moment: they send cenobyte a book, and the cenobyte reads the book, and then they ask cenobyte to write about the book on her bournal. Gee. That would totally suck.
As I write this, I have a refrigerator full of turkey and stuffing and vegetables and fruit. I have a deep freeze full of beef and veggies and home-made stock. As I write this, I am preparing soup stock, while my children sleep peacefully (and snorefully) upstairs. I reflect that I have never had to live through war, insurrection, revolt, resistance, or rebellion. I have never been forced from my home.
Santayana put it so well when he said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I don’t know what happened when you studied history in social studies, but in our high school, the Boer Wars were glossed over, barely touched upon. It was my father who told me about the Boers (the Dutch living in South Africa) , and the battles waged between the Boers and the British. Specifically, between two independent Boer republics and the British.
Trilby Kent’s Stones for my Father takes place in the Transvaal, one of these two indepedent republics, during the second (and longest) Boer War.
About writing this book, an historical fiction based around one family chased from their home and interred in a concentration camp, Kent says :
[the most challenging thing] was probably trying to tell a story without reading history backwards, if that makes sense. I realised that for many people South African history basically means ‘apartheid’, but although the seeds of that terrible regime were already being sown in the early years of the twentieth century, I felt that it was important to tackle the Boer War on its own terms, and in context. I was also hesitant to soften or sanitize the racist attitudes of the day, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the sensibilities of modern readers.
I like the idea of ‘reading history backwards’, but it only works if you know the history to begin with. Otherwise you run the risk of a misunderstood past. When we read history with a modern mindset, we begin to try to explain historical figures’ actions, ascribing to them our own moralities. To us, it’s morally abhorrent to ‘own’ another person. Slavery is wrong. But that’s a relatively new concept; in fact, it’s only a couple of hundred years old. So writers have to first centre you in an historical place and time before you, the reader, can look at the rest of the story and say, “yes, I understand this, and these are not Bad People. They are simply products of their time.” In other words, writers of historical fiction need to set history in its proper context. And I think Kent does this particularly well.
The story itself centres around a girl called Corlie, her brother Gert, and their family (younger brother, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins) who live in the Transvaal at the turn of the 20th century during the 2nd Boer War. They have a small amount of land, and a somewhat emotionally distant but close knit family living nearby.
Kent explores, with a somewhat rough treatment, the landscape of Corlie’s heart. The roughness is necessary and is not unkind. This novel, geared toward young adult readers, is neither simple nor pandering. Like the savannahs and dusty plains of the Transvaal in which it is set are the savannahs and dusty plains of a young girl’s uneasy upbringing. The Transvaal itself is familiar, while still achingly exotic, to anyone who’s lived in rural southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, or Manitoba. Or the northern/midwestern States. And the Canadian connexion in this book, which I don’t want to tell you too much about because of the spoiler alert, reinforces some of those similarities and differences.
Corlie sees her father in everything, her father who has recently died, and though she yearns for acceptance from her mother, she does not know where to begin with a woman who is emotionally remote, and indeed, at times cruel. In those in-between ages, who has not felt utterly alone and abandoned? Yet, Corlie manages to find some degree of closeness whatever happens, in spite of her mother’s viciousness. When the British soldiers come and burn down her home, her bother Gert and her lifelong childhood friend Sipho, who had been a gift to her at birth, share her fears and provide some joy. As her family flees from the encroaching troops, she discovers and cares for an abandoned monkey. Even when they are incarcerated in a concentration camp, Corlie summons the strength and ingenuity to survive.
An important part of this story is the experience Corlie, her mother, and her two brothers have in a concentration camp. We all of us know about the German concentration camps in WWII. But how many have learned that there were similar camps in many other countries, even in Canada? Ostensibly, people sent to the camps in the Boer War were called ‘refugees’, but as Corlie Roux describes it, and certainly according to her mother, they were prisoners of war. It is a difficult subject to broach, particularly in a Young Adult novel, but Kent does so brilliantly. She does not shy from describing, through Corlie Roux’s eyes, the desolation, disease, and desparation people are driven to. It is a section necessarily meant to be unsettling, and because Kent does not shy from the grittier, more difficult details, it is vivid and weighty.
This is Trilby Kent’s second novel for young adults. Medina Hill, her first novel for young adults, again deals with an historical time frame in a very real and very relevant manner. I imagine readers of Stones for my Father being left, as I was (far, now, from ‘young adult’) breathless, teary, and proud. Part of the book’s appeal will be, of course, the fact that Kent does not shy away from colonial mindsets, and does not offer a heavily moralistic tale – for those who know the history of slavery, the inherent racism of the Boers may well leave an uncomfortable feeling. But on the other hand, it’s very easy to look at history backwards…it’s much more difficult to present a protagonist whose ideas are distasteful but who is a likeable character in spite of those ideas, and who does ask some of the same questions we do.
Yet this is what Kent has done, and I’m not quite sure how she’s done it. But done it she has, and there are so many levels to this book, presented in such a small package (fewer than 200 pages) that I cannot even begin to talk about all of them. But, you know, I will. There’s the Boer angle – the white Dutch living in colonial South Africa, who were in support of slavery and indentured servitude of blacks. There’s the tween angle – a girl is having to deal with being half grown-up and half littlekid. There’s death – Corlie is learning to understand and to come to terms with the death of her father, a man …more than a man – a hero to her. Don’t forget about sexism – the best Corlie can hope for is to become well wed. She is treated vastly differently from her brothers. There’s the issue of living in wartime, and then, of course, trying to survive in a concentration camp…and another angle, another storyline that bubbles along through the entire novel, but which isn’t revealed until quite near the end…but it’s all so tightly woven and so well written that you don’t realise how much “stuff” is in there until the end. And it seems that any one of these layers, any one of these topics, would be an excellent starting place to use in a classroom setting.
I asked Trilby Kent if she would be willing to draw a couple of characters from her book, but unfortunately, I was a Poop and asked FAR TOO LATE to include any such forthcoming drawings on the centre of the universe bournal. But I would really like to see some drawings of Corlie (whose full name is CORALINE, which just makes me love her that much more) and Gert, her brother. I’d like to see Sipho and the little twins. And the monkey! Oh! I’d love for someone to draw a picture of the monkey! So please read the book and then forward me pictures of these characters. And I can send them on to Ms. Kent. Which, if I were a writer, I would think was pretty cool.
I’m probably way over my word limit here, so let me just finish with: Trilby is the most beautiful name I have ever heard (and I’m sure Ms. Kent is tired of hearing that). She’s a Canuck, you know! Although she lives in London now (yes, THAT London; not the one in Ontario), she was born in Canada, and that makes her Cool For Life. And she writes about really, really cool stuff. I mean, her novels, of course, but she’s also (in her own words) “written a piece on the handling of race in historical fiction for young adults for the summer issue of Canadian Children’s Book News. It’s a huge subject, of course, but one which I think deserves frank and open discussion”.
It absolutely does, Trilby Kent.
[Goodreads is doing a giveaway for Stones for my Father! If you’re a Canadian or American member of Goodreads, you’re gold; if you’re not, you have to sign up. There are five copies available, they tell me.]