Stones for My Father
Written by Trilby Kent
Tundra Books, 2011, 170 pp.
Corlie Roux lives on a farm in South Africa in the 1890s, where life is never easy and where the beauty of the Transvaal is offset by intense heat that causes even raindrops to sizzle. Her life changes when her beloved father dies and she is left with a mother who is cruel and indifferent. Laying stones on her Pa’s grave is a lifeline for Coralie as is her ability to make up stories that sustain those she cares about, including her little brothers and a Zulu friend, Sipho. Her world is destroyed when the British invade and drive Boer families from their farms. While some escape into the bush to fight, others are rounded up and sent to camps where they endure severe deprivation. Hunger and disease lead to the death of many children, including Coralie’s brother, and Coralie is saved only through her friendship with a Canadian soldier.
This novel focuses on a time period and war that will be unfamiliar to most readers. The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was a lengthy war in which the British sent troops from many British colonies to defeat the Afrikaans, the Dutch settlers who lived on farms in that region of South Africa. The Boers (farmers) had gained their independence from British rule in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881. When the British sought to regain the territory, the Boers engaged in a long and bitter guerilla campaign leading to high British losses. In retaliation, the British burned farms to the ground and rounded up the children and wives of the Boer guerillas. The British policy in the concentration camps was to halve food rations to exert pressure on family members still on the battlefield; a policy that led to the death of many children from starvation and disease.
Powerful themes weave throughout the book. One is the strength of Coralie as a young girl who faces loss, violence and deprivation but remains steadfast and resilient. The strength of her relationships is the heart of this novel and relief against the cruelty. Themes of racism and war are powerfully interwoven. Although the story is told through the perspective of the Boers through Corlie, her experiences allow her to see the British soldiers as human beings and to gain a sense of their perspectives. The novel makes it clear that both English and Afrikaners acted abominably at different times and in different ways and that both suffered terribly.
Corlie’s close relationship with Sipho leads her to question the reality and tragedy of racism. The author depicts the complexity of the relationships between Afrikaner colonists and English imperialists and between these groups and the Indigenous Africans. Kent hints at the way an oppressed people, in this case the Afrikaners, can become an oppressive people through the seeds of resentment sown during this war that eventually lead to apartheid. She authentically has Afrikaners use racists terms to describe Indigenous Africans but there is no explanation of their insulting nature for readers unfamiliar with this time period and cultural setting.
The book received the 2012 Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Trilby Kent is Canadian, but has lived in the UK as an adult and is currently pursuing a doctorate in creative writing. She is an academic with degrees in history and social anthropology and has worked in investigative journalism and international development. Her family has a long history in journalism, both newspaper and television, and her father is the current Minister of Environment in Canada after a career in broadcast journalism. Her mother is South African and this novel grew out of a family pilgrimage to the Free State and family farms. Kent found that people living in that region still have a vivid memory of the war and continue to talk about it as a highly politicized and political subject, leading her to research the war and write this novel. Kent engaged in meticulous research and does not sanitize history for young readers. This book is her second novel for children, with her first being Medina Hill (2009), involving Gypsy Travelers in 1930’s London.
The author appears to have carefully worked to portray this time period authentically and to provide multiple views on these events through the eyes of a young girl, whose experiences have led her to question, rather than accept, societal views. Although authenticity does not appear to be an issue, representation is a concern. There has been a recent influx of novels and picture books set in different parts of Africa, many of which are written by white authors with ties to Africa, such as Out of the Shadows (Jason Wallace, 2011), Now is the Time for Running (Michael Williams, 2011), This Thing Called the Future (J.L. Powers, 2011), Burn My Heart (Beverley Naidoo, 2009), Promise the Night (MacCall, 2011), City Boy (Jan Michael, 2009), Beatrice’s Dream (Karen Lynn Williams, 2011), and The Herd Boy (Niki Daly, 2012). Many of these books are well-written, raising difficult issues of racism and filling a tremendous void in North America of children’s books set in African countries. However, the overrepresentation of white perspectives on life in African countries, many of which could be seen as colonial in their origin, does not provide a set of books that reflect a range of perspectives and experiences. The few books written by Indigenous Africans are primarily authors who fled war and genocide in their countries of origin and now live in Canada, the UK, or the U.S.–an important perspective but one that does not provide a range of views about contemporary life in African countries. Examples are The Bite of the Mango (Mariatu Karnara & Susan McClelland, 2008), Over a Thousand Hills, I Walk with You (Hanna Jansen, 2002), and Between Sisters (Adowa Badoe, 2010).
The paucity of books by Indigenous African authors on contemporary life creates serious issues of representation and the possibility of new stereotypes and misconceptions at a time when books about African cultures are finally entering the reading lives of children and adolescents. Until those books do become available in North American markets, educators will need to search out internet resources to add these perspectives to their classrooms.
Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ