By ROB HOFMEYR
Early Warning by Jane Smiley 5
The Boer War by Martin Bossenbroek 8
Rescue at Los Banos by Bruce Henderson 7
Street God by Dimas Salaberrios with Dr Angela Hunt 8
Jane Smiley set out to write a trilogy, covering the fortunes of an American family over a century. Early Warning is the second volume in that trilogy, beginning in the year 1953. Each chapter is one year of family drama set against the larger drama of the USA. This volume covers the period 1953 to 1986. The Langdon family have spread from their rural base, but come together for the funeral of the patriarch, Walter. Here we are re-introduced to them all, including the youngest children. Most interesting are husbands, Frank Langdon and brother-in-law Arthur Manning. Arthur is Washington and he has recruited Frank as a clandestine assistant. We are immediately involved in the undercover activities of the Cold War and the destabilisation of regimes, with these threads woven through the book. Others, including the aunts, wives and children, take us on domestic forays into other spheres, theories of child-rearing, the politics of small town churches, schooling, the newly popular psychiatrist’s couch, farming, and urban life. Henry, who is homosexual, is an academic. Each chapter recounts something of each of the groups of players – sometimes their interactions with other family members, sometimes their involvement with politics or professions. Each chapter is a patchwork quilt of personalities and the spheres within which they live and move. The elders give some sense of history, of past eras, in a rapidly changing world. Through the family we are taken into the world of politics, of presidential and congressional elections. In 1957, Sputnik is launched and Joe the farmer has plenty of time to stare out over the growing corn, speculating on this new phenomenon. And so each year comes and goes, with wars, elections, scandals and crises, but also births and children growing up, patchy relationships and the heartbreak of cancer. Vietnam casts its shadow over their lives. The bright, personable Tim fathers a child in a school romance, is drafted and is a casualty of that tragic war. I found the structure of the book, insisting on one chapter per annum, very difficult to cope with. Often the developments demand broader and longer treatment. The Cuban Missile Crisis was short-lived, but Vietnam was not. It is all too bitty. There is a very good account of one of the young members of the family being caught up in a cult with a charismatic preacher and his mishmash of theology and politics. Sensible and frightened as the members become more and more enmeshed, she breaks away, avoiding disaster for herself. It is a very good study of this frightening American phenomenon, but I had to piece it together myself. The book ends in the Reagan era, the Langdons and the Mannings in touch with each other, but widely dispersed.
This book is very ably translated from the original Nederlands. It brings a new perspective on the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, written by someone neither Boer nor Brit and highlighting the role of Continental powers and the citizens of those countries, especially Holland. Another aspect is the weaving of the war narrative into the political history of South Africa, taking us right through to the immediate present and the resurgent racial conflict. The Prologue and the Epilogue are good commentaries on contemporary issues. The Boer War proper begins with the meeting in 1884 between President Kruger and a brilliant 25-year-old law graduate from Amsterdam. Willem Leyds, PhD, could have chosen any career he wished. Kruger persuaded him to come to the Transvaal as State Attorney. Among the factors influencing him was the sympathy felt in the Netherlands for the two Boer republics resisting the encroachment of the British Empire. There were those active in supporting the Boer cause and encouraging emigration to the republics. We see the Transvaal through the records kept by Leyds, a man of extraordinary capacity, bringing order and legislation into situations that were dynamic, fluid and often anarchic. He had also to deal with entrenched corruption among the political elite. The Nellmapius affair is one such episode. Kruger was soon to call on him to assist in international affairs, negotiating with the British in particular over the south-western borders of the Transvaal. Here, Bossenbroek gives a very helpful account of the land issues involved as the migration of land-hungry whites culminates in the disputes over traditional Africa-held territories. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 brought a new pressure to bear on the republics. Again we see the unfolding problems through the eyes of a man who had to bring regulation and civil order to bear on the chaotic new situation. The dynamite concessions and the building of the railway to Delagoa Bay were two of the new issues. Leyds was unhappy with the Transvaal’s “concession system”, the cornerstone of trade, but was unable to change it. European players were now the Netherlands (a love-hate relationship with the Boers and also the railway), the Portugese (fearing that the expansion of the Empire would cost them their African colonies) and the French (financial interests). The long period of bargaining, concessions, demands, the so-called Conference of Blignautspoort, the looming influence of Rhodes and his imperial dream: this is a detailed and helpful account, making more sense of the war that was to come, and the parties to that war. The German Kaiser took a personal interest in the completion of the railway. Kruger’s personal antipathy to Johannesburg and its people is worth noting. He and his Volksraad were unable to come to terms with the Uitlander question. The inflammatory conscription of Uitlanders into a commando attacking an African chief became a cause celebre. The appalling concession system was a justifiable grievance to both mining bosses and the Uitlanders in general. The book deals extremely well with the events leading up to the war itself, with the conduct of the war, the logistics, the personalities involved, the campaigns, the strategies. It is a compelling account, convincing, readable and with an eye for the significant detail which has escaped other historians. Denys Reitz and Churchill’s accounts are quoted extensively, but also the stories of other non-military figures. Fourteen foreign humanitarian teams came from countries other than the Netherlands: from Germany, Russia, Belgium, Switzerland and Scandinavia and did good work. On the other hand an Anglo-Irish relief team 60 strong arrived but immediately shed their Red Cross insignia and took up arms against the British. Leyds continues to play an important role in garnering support from Europe. He seemed to be close to success The Russians, the Germans and the French would appeal to Britain to end the war, respecting the independence of the Boer republics. Bossenbroek gives a fascinating account of the exchange of telegrams and the ultimate failure of diplomatic efforts. This is a very good book, a worthy addition to other accounts of this war. It takes us well beyond a military narrative into an understanding of the causes and the long-term effects of the armed conflict.
Rescue at Los Banos is an account of a daring raid on a Japanese POW camp towards the end of World War 2. It is a good piece of popular military history, by no means a remote overview of strategies and careful planning. It is an account through the eyes and experiences of a variety of folk, men and women, imprisoned in Los Banos, and through the eyes of the leading figures in the planning and execution of this raid. It is an interesting reminder of the appalling treatment of prisoners by the Japanese, and the real threat that in retreating they would be more than likely to massacre civilians and soldiers in the camp rather than lose face. The lives of ordinary people are brought to life, and the book reads at times like a good novel. It is however primarily an astonishing review of United States Army reconnaissance and planning, the careful assembling of the necessary weaponry and the immaculate execution of the plan. It relies heavily on the training and courage of military personnel but equally on a command structure of the highest order. Nothing is left to chance. I found the concluding chapter on the trial and execution of the Japanese officer in charge of the camp somewhat jarring. This book would appeal more to American readers but it is of general interest and certainly is an engrossing narrative.
A drug dealer in his early teens, a drug lord before he was 20, Dimas Salaberrios was converted to the Christian faith and became pastor of a New York church. He became a leader in opposing the City when there was a move to clamp down on churches meeting in school buildings, went on a hunger strike, and facing death, succeeded in keeping churches open. Street God is a quite extraordinary narrative. The reader is given some understanding of the horrors of drug trafficking on the fringes of middle class society. The boy was the son of a prison officer who, every Sunday, invested time and thought into equipping Dimas with both skills and ambition. Dimas lived with his mother in a leafy suburb. She was a professional and well educated. His elder half-siblings were the good products of a caring home. Dimas, however, was lured by the flashy lifestyle of drug dealers and their street success. Able, intelligent, ambitious and shrewd, he became highly successful on the streets. Undeterred by the viciousness of the gangs, arrested and released and constantly under threat, he became a street god, making enormous sums of money. His mother showed extraordinary grace, loyalty and love, trying in every way to bring him back to his senses, there for him at every twist and turn. We have a vivid account of survival in prison, attempts at rehabilitation and his descent into helpless addiction. Inevitably he came to faith only when he realised just how desperate his situation was. This was a long hard journey, with support from a variety of Christians, themselves often confused, but ultimately reaching equilibrium in a solid fellowship. A man of great ability and imposing physical presence, he became a leader and then a pastor. And as a pastor a figure to be reckoned with in inner-city ministry and the many conflict situations in New York City. This is a compelling account. It is worth reading for its understanding of the drug world, of the infamous prisons, and of a world where churches have great difficulties not only with the tough environment but also with establishing acceptable Christian norms for their followers in the realms of employment, sexual morality and even the distinction between weed and crack. It is also a good case study for those interested in the sociology of conversion.