Posted in Loved It, Mystery

The Scent of Oranges

February, as you know, is Black History Month. As is my custom I feature a book which I feel embodies the fight against discrimination. This book takes place in South Africa, a place we all know that Apartheid was stamped out only recently.

Linda Van Wyck is the daughter of an Afrikaan’s farmer. She is the youngest of four children and the only daughters. Her brothers are Connie, Vince, and Hannes. The family moved onto the farm when she was three years old in 1958. In her exploration of the house, Linda discovered she could see ghosts or “goners” as she called them. It was something she never shared with anyone else in her family.

She returns home 47 years later for her fathers funeral. We discover that Linda moved to Australia with her now ex-husband about 19 years ago. She and her her ex left South Africa because they didn’t approve of Apartheid. They were dead against it. But racism had taken hold of South Africa very strong- so they left. After the funeral, Linda is approached by her father’s attorney bearing an envelop with a letter from her father. Much to her surprise, her father wants her to investigate the murder of her brother Hannes, which took place close to 40 years before. Her father gives her instead of her remaining brother Connie and Vince the task because he knows she will not rest till she discovers the truth.

spoiler alert

Linda stirs up quite the hornets nest in order to find out what happened to her brother. See the investigation was royally botched. The police arrested the first three African men they found, charged them, convicted them, and sentenced them to life imprison. Linda’s father felt that these men were probably innocent, but he did nothing at the time.
I picked this book, because in the end the death was caused by racism. Hannes did not look like the rest of the family. He had more ethnic features than the rest of the family. So a lot of people (especially children) teased him about having kaffir blood. Even the Van Wyck parents did not seem overly fond of their son. In fact they tried to make him look as Caucasian as possible. So he did what most children do when they are not getting the emotional support they need- he acted out. Hannes played mean spirit pranks of people for vengence and to get people to laugh. Linda knew deep down that Hannes did have a kind nature, but circumstances did not bring out the best in him. So to figure out the murder, Linda had to learn a lot about her family history- and not all of it was pleasant. As it turned out the Van Wyck family had a Bushman in their family. It turns out that Linda’s great-great grandmother had an affair with a Bushman while her husband was away on a long trip. South Africa was different than America. In the USA, Black men were not permitted to sleep with or even look at women (as I recall there was a crime of “reckless eyeballing”). However, Caucasian men were permitted to keep Black mistresses. In South Africa, the Afrikaans did not believe in any mixing of the races. As a result, interracial sex was punishable with jail time. So this ancestor of Linda claimed rape. Linda was of the belief after reading the newspaper clippings that the woman was lonely and found a nice man. There was a picture of this bi-racial child- Hannes looked a lot like him. As you can imagine that was something the Van Wyck’s wanted to keep as quiet as possible.

As Hannes got older, he became a snoop.- a very good one. It turns out he was blackmailing the oldest brother Connie. Connie had an African girlfriend, Miriam, who bore him a child, Thomas. Connie resented Hannes especially when Hannes decided to let Connie’s secret out of the bag when Linda’s maternal grandparents were visiting. Linda also discovered that her father’s brother had a thing for Indian women and had in fact raped at least one woman. I won’t tell you any more except to say that as the story progressed it became clear that the murderer was probably right in Linda’s own family.

Hannes’ death caused Linda’s father to rethink some things. He realized he should have helped his son more. To make amends for what he should have done, he willed a large farm to his workers; it had been their tribal land.

I really enjoyed this book. It was so sad, yet so poignant. So many lives were ruined all because people judged others by the color of their skin and not by the type of person that they were. The sad thing is that even though Apartheid ended problems remain. There hasn’t been a happily ever after. I remember when Apartheid ended, my family and I were invited to the South African embassy to present a plaque my father had made for the occasion (long story). I remember we were invited to the 1 year anniversary at the U.N. The embassy employees partied like New Years, but still people in their country were dying from AIDS and violence continued. I was surprised by the celebration. I understand that for them the “bad” times were over, but I expected it to be more solemn in remembrance for those who were jailed, killed, and oppressed over the years for being dark skinned. I guess I felt they were suppressing what had happened. I don’t believe in living in the past. But what happens to you, good or evil, it makes you into the person that you are. If you used hardship to make yourself a stronger person, I don’t think you should be ashamed of your hardship and try to suppress or ignore it. But maybe I judge too harshly.

This was an excellent read. It gave me plenty to think about. So buy it!

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Posted in Autobiography

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

This book is the biography of former slave Harriet Jacobs. Harriet was born in North Carolina 1813. She was a mulatto. Female mulattos may not have been set to the fields. But they had a more demeaning life as sex slaves.

For years Harriet was unaware she was a slave. She was blessed in that she was owned by a kind mistress who looked after once her mother died. Once the mistress died she was left the property of her mistress’ niece who was a child at that point. She spent her childhood through young adult life evading her sexually predatory master.

In desperation, she turns to seemingly “sympathetic” senator and bears him two children foolishly believing that her master would sell her once he realized someone else had beaten him to the punch, for lack of better expression. The master tried various means to get Harriet to give herself up to him; he even threatened to sell her children; but to no avail. Her master decides to send she and her children to the plantation. This and this alone pushes Harriet to carry through with her planned escape.

I have to give the woman props for her escape plan. She definitely knew the value of patience. She went into hiding. The master incarcerated her children and brother. At this point, the children’s father purchased the children and her brother under their great-grandmother’s (a free woman) name. Harriet realized that she would have to wait some time before she could leave without being tracked. She hid in the tiny space above her grandmother’s shed for seven years.

To throw off suspicion, she wrote letters and had them posted from New York and Massachusetts knowing that her master would intercept those letters. Meanwhile the children’s father sent Harriet’s daughter Ellen up North supposedly to get education.

After seven years, Harriet escapes to Philly then ends up in New York as a nanny to a British woman. As it turns out, Ellen ends up a maid to her aunt and has yet to begin her education; but as Harriet’s grandmother actually “owns” Ellen, she sends her daughter to a boarding school in Massachusetts. Harriet has several close encounters with her master. Unfortunately even when he dies his family still comes after Harriet. At last, Harriet’s new employer is able to purchase her freedom once and for all.

Ok! Let me explain the rating. The story was well written. It was poignant. I couldn’t put it down. I gave it a D because the subject matter. It was a sad, unpleasant tale. Slavery is a blight upon our country’s history. I’m glad that I read the book. I highly recommend it. But it was not something that I “like.” I hope that makes sense. This is a value read for teenagers.