Book Review: The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson

The Great Karoo by Fred StensonThe author’s name jumped off the book cover at me, though I had to think for a minute about how I knew Fred Stenson. Then I remembered I have a book of his about writing fiction, and so, intrigued to see how the man who talks about writing fiction actually writes fiction, I picked up the book. The Great Karoo is the story of an Alberta regiment who fights in the Boer War of 1899-1902.

I looked up the Boer War in my history book, since it had formed such a small part of the course that I barely remembered it. The British and the Boers had a brief skirmish in 1880-81, in which the Boers successfully resisted the British and established the Transvaal Republic. In 1899, the British went to war again, attacking the Boer “rebels” in an attempt to establish an empire that stretched across Africa.

Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders joined the fight, though many of them didn’t even know why they were fighting. Canadians were divided about the war and their feelings on British imperialism, but 7300 men eventually went to fight, and 245 died there. The British started with several successes, but the Boers had the advantage of knowing the country. They began a practice of guerrilla warfare, and to retaliate, the British burned farms and put women and children into concentration camps. Finally in 1902, when everyone was tired of the war and the Boers had given up, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the war.

The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson

The Great Karoo begins in southern Alberta, where young men are excitedly enlisting for the war. Frank Adams is the main character, a man whose motives for heading to war remain uncertain. The men go through training camps in eastern Canada and then survive seasickness on the voyage across to Africa. There, they begin wandering through The Great Karoo Desert in Africa, following general’s orders, and trying to keep their horses alive through the desert marches.

They haven’t been in Africa for very long before Frank begins wondering why he and those he knows from Alberta joined the army. Fred Morden is a cocky, confident leader, one who seeks to become a hero in the war. Jefferson Davis is a halfbreed who wants to kill Boers to earn the approval of his future father-in-law. Ovide Smith is a quiet man from Quebec who talks little and grows angry at the army’s treatment of the horses. Frank is caught up in the excitement of the battles, grows weary by the extended marches, and then becomes angry as his comrades begin to die.

His motives for being in Africa change again when he falls in love with a Boer girl. Alma barely speaks any English, yet she is hungry for a man’s love. Frank is convinced he loves her, and when he must leave her, he tells himself she’ll wait for him, that when the war is over, they can be together. He no longer wishes to fight or kill Boers and tries to avoid any duties that would make him do that. And when Alma and her mother are put into a concentration camp, he goes across Africa to find her—only to find that, like the war itself, Alma isn’t what he thought she was.

Throughout the novel, Frank seeks friendship, first from Ovide, then from Jeff. He wants to feel that they are buddies and will look out for each other. However, when he fails to do this for Ovide, he sinks into depression. As he and Jeff begin working together, Frank slowly realizes he cannot be responsible for Jeff, that Jeff will make his own choices. When Frank’s beloved dun mare is stolen by the Boers, he’ll do anything to get her back—even risk a court martial for desertion to go look for her.

Fred Stenson makes the Second Boer War come alive through the characters. He shows the generals and commanders, their goals and motivations. He shows the gore of war, as well as the stubbornness and greed that drove men to slaughter each other for fame and wealth. And he shows the average soldier who joined the army to find adventure and then realizes that adventure of that sort isn’t what he wanted. The Great Karoo is a fascinating story of a little-known bit of Canadian history.

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