The Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, as witnessed by an adolescent Boer girl.
If history is written by the victors, this may explain why so little is known about the travails of the Boers, Dutch colonists of South Africa, against the British. The novel begins when 13-year-old Lettie is turned out of her family’s farmhouse along with her mother (known mostly as Moeder), younger sister, Cecelia, and brother, Willem. The farm is burned by British soldiers and the family’s livestock is killed; such dispossessions are perpetrated again and again by the British, who aim to displace the Boer farmers to mine their territory for diamonds and gold. The Boer men have all left to fight. The women and children are herded into concentration camps and, in crowded, flimsy tents, are essentially left to starve and die of the diseases that flourish in close, unsanitary quarters. Moeder is incensed at Lettie’s beloved aunt, Hannah, who, thanks to her husband Sarel’s surrender, is housed in better conditions. The Boer mothers are leery of the camp hospital, resorting instead to folk remedies: these fail to save the life of Cecelia, who wastes away from malnutrition. Risking Moeder’s censure, Lettie befriends a young British guard, Maples, who shows her kindness, including giving her a volume of Dickens and a prized potato, which is devoured by Lettie and her tent-mates. Volunteering at the hospital, Lettie works alongside Tante Hannah as a nurse’s aide, as does Uncle Sarel, who takes on the grisliest tasks in atonement for his desertion. The novel sheds much-needed light on the deaths of thousands of Boer civilians in these camps. Boling (Guernica, 2008) occasionally lapses into sentimentality and overly reverent portrayals of the Boers as salt-of-the-earth Bible-thumpers, although in one instance Maples reminds Lettie that the Boers drove the Zulus out in order to become peaceable landowners.
A valuable testament providing glimmers, however scant, of hope for humanity.