Monday, November 7, 2016

CHILD OF THE RIVER by Irma Joubert

A compelling coming of age story with an unlikely and utterly memorable heroine, Child of the River is a timeless tale of heartbreak and triumph set in South Africa at the dawn of apartheid.
Persomi is young, white, and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm in the South African Bushveld. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her, escaping the brutality and squalor of her family home through the newspapers and books passed down to her from the main house and through her walks in the nearby mountains.
Persomi’s close relationship with her older brother Gerbrand and her fragile friendship with Boelie Fourie—heir to the Fourie farm and fortune—are her lifeline and her only connection to the outside world. When Gerbrand leaves the farm to fight on the side of the Anglos in WWII and Boelie joins an underground network of Boer nationalists, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, a native country that values justice and equality, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of war and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is, where she belongs, and why her life—and every life—matters.
The English language publication of Child of the River solidifies Irma Joubert as a unique and powerful voice in historical fiction.
International bestselling author IRMA JOUBERT was a history teacher for 35 years before she began writing fiction. Her stories are known for their deep insight into personal relationships and rich historical detail. She is the author of eight novels and a regular fixture on bestseller lists in The Netherlands and in her native South Africa. She is the winner of the 2010 ATKV Prize for Romance Novels.

Five Things You Need to Know:

1.            Child of the River was originally written in Afrikaans as Pérsomi and was published in South Africa in 2010. The story is set in South Africa in the years 1938 to 1968. Americans will be familiar with the two historical themes: the poor white challenge and Apartheid. South Africa’s poor whites of the 1930’s and 1940’s can be compared to the American Dust Bowl experience of the 1930’s  – the “Okies” of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Texas and New Mexico. The second theme is the South African Apartheid system of the 1950’s and 1960’s, not unlike the segregationist ways then prevalent in the American South.  And the third and most prominent theme is the unlikely relationship between Pérsomi, the sharecropper’s daughter, and Boelie, the wealthy landowner’s eldest son.

2.            As with The Girl From the Train, this novel is set in the northernmost part of South Africa, on a cattle ranch in the Bushveld. The Bushveld is a rugged, hot, dry area that was still largely pioneer country during the mid 20th century. During those years most Afrikaners were farmers (boers in Afrikaans). Electricity was unknown on the Bushveld farms of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Farmers used lamps or candles for lighting and wood stoves for cooking. To enjoy an early morning cup of coffee, they had to fetch water from the river and light the wood stove to bring it to boil. Farmers slaugtered their own cattle or game for meat and baked their own bread in a specially built mud oven.

3.            Child of the River is based on two true stories. At school I knew many Pérsomis: girls who sat with me on school benches, shared dormitories with me at boarding school. They had never before slept on a bed, bathed or showered in a modern bathroom, nor knew how to use a knife and fork. These were the needy children who were handed down charity clothing and who had to collect state subsidised textbooks in front of gawking class mates. Their fathers were drunk weekend after weekend and their sisters were pregnant by age fourteen. My heart went out to them instinctively. I also experienced the Apartheid years. Where I grew up, the Asian owned shops were in the middle of town. I knew Mr. Ravat, his cohort and their shops from a young age. But then these traders were banned to a place far out of town. Their shops and homes were bulldozed. All that remained was a wound in the middle of town, empty land where guilty consciences prevented people from building. They just left because they could no longer trade. I felt their story needed and deserved to be told.

4.            Many hours of research went into writing this book. Revisiting the town of my youth, people opened their hearts, retelling many heart-wrenching stories I had heard over the years, unselfishly unravelling the sorrow I had witnessed as a child, but never understood. Much of my research involves conversations with people who experienced events themselves, or whose parents told them the stories. So I spoke with Mr. Ravat, whom I knew as a child. Today, he is a very old man. But at the time of their forced removal he was an upcoming young shopkeeper whose family had been living and trading in the town for generations. Then the silent terror of Apartheid and the Group Areas Act was upon them. His family was torn apart. The Asian characters in my story were pieced together from his memories and based on court reports. I found it personally very fulfilling.

5.            A follow up of this novel is due for publication in the US in 2017. Readers can again encounter the main characters Pérsomi and Boelie, the self-centered Annabel de Vos (she just forced herself into my novel, as she would!), the ever charming De Wet Fourie, Antonio’s brother Marco all the way from Italy, and the most interesting character of all, the young Asian doctor, Yusuf Ismail.


Based on actual accounts, this is a sweeping novel that takes the readers straight into the heart of Apartheid in South Africa during the mid 1950's. At the heart of the tale is a young woman named Persomis, the daughter of a poor whie sharecropper. Her home life is dysfunctional. Her father is a drunk who beats his family. When Persomis's mother is taken away by the police, social workers step in and seize her younger siblings. They send Persomi to a boarding school, she then attends university and earns a law degree. 

When she returns home, she takes on a case to fight against a law that forces non-whites to leave their homes, neighborhoods, and businesses and move to a location strictly for non-whites. It is this work that brings new enlightening to Persomi that forever alters her life.

The author knows her material well, and it materialized in the splendid descriptions and relaying the South African political atmosphere of the times. I very much appreciated the glossary of South African terms at the start of the book. The author has a knack for delving deep into the psyche of her characters which makes them real and often larger than life. Their plight became my plight and my emotions were stirred in many directions throughout the reading of this important historical novel. 

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