THE COVENANT by James A. Michener


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Is this 900-page South Africa saga much more spotty and ill-shaped than Chesapeake and Centennial--or does it just seem so because we can't automatically fill in the gaps of history ourselves this time? In any case, Michener is using his familiar approach here: tracing a region's history through a few families, with a not-always-congenial mix of soap opera, celebrity cameos, and textbook lessons. He begins with a glimpse of prehistoric Bushmen crossing the desert (going south) in search of water, but then he quickly introduces the first of his central dynasties: in the 1450s, black youth Nxumalo is inspired by white gold-traders, treks north to the rich city of Zimbabwe, and witnesses its tragic abandonment; 350 years (and 300 pages) later, his descendant plays Brutus to the Caesar of mad, mother-obsessed Zulu king Shaka (who unifies the tribes via constant bloody warfare); and in the 1970s, Prof. Daniel Nxumalo, non-violent black activist, will be tried for high treason. Overall, however, the varied non-whites--Hottentots, Xhosa, Zulu, Coloured--get relatively little space here, with the prime focus on the Europeans. The Dutch Van Doorns are the key clan, beginning when young Willem is among a group of castaways forced to settle on the Cape in the 1640s: he impregnantes a beloved Malay slave (the start of the "Coloured" population) but marries an imported Dutch bride and, after founding a top winemaking farm (with crucial help from a Huguenot refugee), proudly coins the term "Afrikaner"; his grandson becomes one of the "trekboers" who move east with herds, battling blacks for land; and when English rule comes in the early 1800s, this hinterlands branch of the fiercely Calvinistic Van Doorns will be at the center of Boer resistance-taking part in the Great Trek north to escape Anglo laws, suffering Zulu massacre, reaffirming their supposed land "covenant" with God in the 1838 Battle of Blood River, rebelling against English language and regulation with full-scale (or guerrilla) war, dying in Kitchener's concentration camps, supporting Germany in both world wars, but finally establishing Afrikaner control through slow acquisition of administrative positions. (In the 1950s Detleef Van Doom, seemingly singlehanded, institutes detailed apartheid.) And the English are represented by the Saltwoods: 1820s missionary Hilary incurs Boer wrath by opposing slavery and wedding rescued slave Emma ("his marvelous little assistant with the laughing eyes"); knighted brother Richard organizes relief for starving Xhosa; Richard's grandson Frank is one of Cecil Rhodes' "young men" (soon disillusioned) and performs ugly Boer War duties before standing up to Kitchener; and the 1970s Saltwoods will defend civil rights while a distant American relation digs for diamonds, befriends Prof. Nxumalo, and loves a Van Doorn. A wealth of fascinating material--and Michener does his best to balance Boer intransigence (with its religious base) against imperious English mistakes, to find shreds of decency among patterns of cruelty and obtuseness. But, despite a chapter devoted to apartheid horrors (So. Africa has banned the book), the non-white side of things never becomes humanly specific. And one somehow ends this huge volume with little feel for historical continuity or for the physical setting (a surprising lapse from Michener). . . and none at all for contemporary South Africa. (You'll get far more real sense of the people and place in fiction by Nadine Gordimer or James McClure.) Still, despite these flaws and the more usual ones--B-movie dialogue, preachy digressions, corny coincidences. clichÉs and stereotypes galore--Michener's flocks of fans will certainly get the bulk and variety and epic events they expect; and, when all is said and done, how many surefire bestsellers are as clean-hearted, well-meaning, and undeniably educational as a Michener mammoth? Easy to put down, then (in both senses of the word), but worthy and welcome.
Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 1980
ISBN: 0449214206
Page count: 1242pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1980


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