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Fiction set in South Africa (not Britain’s proudest moment…)

30th September 2014

The Undesirables by Dave Boling – fiction set in South Africa.

IMG_2597A remarkable book in many ways. The Undesirables is the story of one facet of the 1900 Second Boer War between the Dutch settlers in South Africa and the British army they were fighting. It is, and this may come as quite a shock to many, the story of how – 40 years before the Holocaust – the British raised farmhouses to the ground, and imprisoned the women and children in mass ‘concentration’ camps with only the barest of amenities. Disease and malnutrition were rampant – the Second Boer War killed more children in concentration camps than soldiers on both sides in actual combat.

The ‘Undesirables’ was the name the British gave to those who would not surrender and cooperate. Other names were the ‘Tame’ Boers for those who would not fight, the ‘Hand Uppers’ for those who had surrendered to the British, and (worst of all) the ‘Joiners’ who had both surrendered and agreed to help the British in combat or scouting. A fence inside the camp kept the ‘Undesirables’ from the rest – and in by far the worst conditions.

The book is the story of the Venter family. It starts just before the War in their family farm in the Orange Free State. There are Moeder and Vater, and Moeder’s father, Oupa. Plus four children – Schalk, Aletta / Lettie, Willem and little Cecelia / Cece. Oupa, Vater, and Schalk go off to defend their homeland leaving Moeder to manage the farm and remaining family as best she can. Shortly the British come, ransack the farm to stop the men returning for supplies – and take the rest off to a camp… where most of the subsequent action in the book takes place. The ‘heroine’ of the story is Lettie through whom the narrative is told in the first person. She, and Moeder, are the strength of the family during the two years they spend in the camp. They experience malnutrition and disease, and death is all around them… Lettie is an adolescent, and she grows over the course of the book as she finds ways to cope with the confinement, privation, and loss. There is a ‘love’ interest in the form of Tommy Maples, a British soldier, who befriends Lettie and helps her smuggle letters to Tante Hannah on the traitors’ side of the fence. But it ends in tears.

The last chapter of the book is after the War when the family return to the farm, are reunited with their much loved black servant, Bina, and gradually recover their sanity and their health. They reconcile with Tante Hannah, and live with her as they start on the massive task of rebuilding their home. We learn what has happened to their men (but to tell would be a spoiler…).

The Undesirables is a book that had several profound effects on me – first, the obvious one of learning how the British army behaved just over 100 years ago. It is not a period of which we should be proud. Second, the quiet dignity and faith of the Boers (particularly Moeder and Lettie) in the face of such adversity. And thirdly I marvel at how Dave Boling, a Chicago native now working as a journalist in Seattle, could have got so far under the skin of both Boers and British in such a far off war and location. I had presumed he was either British, Boer, or Dutch – but then discovered he was not. He is a very impressive writer. His only previous book, Guernica, tells the story of the 1937 Luftwaffe raid on this Basque town – and was Richard and Judy’s Summer Read for 2009. Some logic here in that his wife is a Basque whose family moved to the States – but I can’t fathom the Boer connection!

That said, I really look forward to his third book – wherever it may be set.

Tony for the TripFiction team

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