For a change, I thought I’d post a book review today. Stones For My Father, by Trilby Kent, is a historical children’s novel published in Canada and the U.S. by Tundra Books. Set during the Boer war, it’s the story of an Afrikaans girl, Corlie Roux, whose life is changed forever when her farm is burned by the British army and she has to escape into the bush. From the days hiding out with the laager, to her final imprisonment in a concentration camp, Corlie’s struggle to survive in the beautiful but harsh African landscape is richly and evocatively described. Animals, in particular, are so well-painted that they leap off the page. This is one of those books that leaves you feeling as if you have really been there.
“We continued in silence, stopping only to watch a goshawk slice between the treetops on its afternoon death-cruise. When we reached the river-bank, I tore off a thread from the hem of my dress and showed Gert how to tie it onto a fishhook. We gathered sticks for rods, and used bright protea leaves for bait. Then we slipped our dry-soled feet into the sparkling water and waited, trying to ignore our growling stomachs.”
Corlie’s mother – who hates her, for reasons that are revealed at the end of the book – is one of the adult characters who are so well-described that they seem to have physical weight in the mind.
“’Get out of here,’ she snapped. ‘Take your brother to Oom Flip’s. He owes us a box of tobacco.’ Despite her godly airs, my mother was a prodigious smoker. Pa had never approved of her pipe habit, but Pa wasn’t around anymore to tell her so. My mother’s face had turned quite red, the veins in her temples bulging where her hair had been scraped back into a severe bun. ‘Are you deaf, girl? Do you want me to get the sjambok?’”
There was a discussion recently about hope in children’s books on the Balaclava mailing list, and I thought this was an interesting book in relation to that discussion. Corlie’s life is tough and unredeemed by love. No-one comes out of this well, not the British who burn farms and herd children like Corlie into concentration camps to die, nor the Boers who consider Africa given to them by God and casually beat the African servants by whose knowledge and skills they have been kept alive in the bush. There is a sense of people made hard by their hard lives, and all – from soldiers to children - caught up in the chaotic whirlwind of war.
The most obvious source of hope is in the figure of Corporal Byrne, the Canadian soldier fighting on the British side, who finally gives Corlie a future. But I think there is another one, which pervades the whole book – the physicality of Africa itself; the animals, the vegetation, the land. This is a harsh and dangerous place where Corlie is at risk, but it is always described with love and a sense of joy in its immense beauty. The land itself is the hope.
There is another interesting issue, which may or may not be obvious from the excerpts above: it’s difficult to determine the reading age for this book. This is certainly not The White Giraffe, for example! Corlie herself is twelve, but narrates the book from some future point of adulthood, and very much as a literate and educated adult – for example, on the first page she describes a baby as a ‘putto’. There’s plenty of exciting plot, but I did feel that the final chapters, particularly around the dream sequence, might drag for the child reader. The novel would probably be best suited to a thoughtful teenage reader or an adult. If younger children who like a challenge try it, though, I’m sure they will find much to enjoy, for Corlie’s Africa is a world which will entrance you and convince you. When I put it down I could still hear the lourie birds calling and see the bright wildflowers trembling in the breeze.
Stones For My Father is Trilby Kent’s second novel for children. Her first is Medina Hill, and her first novel for adult readers: Smoke Portrait, has just been published by Alma Books. She lives in London.