An Aid to Reading Shades by Marguerite Poland

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The Novel: shades by Marguerite Poland
Shades is a South African novel by the award-winning author, Marguerite Poland. Her academic credentials are impressive, as she has degrees from Rhodes and Stellenbosch Universities and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has studied Xhosa, Social Anthropology and Comparative African Languages, with a special focus on Zulu Literature. She has written for both children and adults, which is an unusual achievement. Of her eleven children’s books, The Mantis of the Moon is probably the most famous. She received the Percy Fitzpatrick Award for it, and also for another children’s book, Woodash Stars. Her books have been translated into a number of languages, including French and Japanese. She has written four adult novels. including The Train to Doringbult and Shades.  She is married to the attorney Martin Oosthuizen, and has two daughters and three grandchildren. The Setting

Marguerite Poland was descended from missionary folk who served at Keiskamma Hoek, and has said that this book was prompted in part by family records, so that it is among other things a tribute to the “shades” of her ancestors.

The novel is set in the Eastern Cape before the South African War of 1899-1902, but to understand it we need to go further back in history. Between 1779-1878 a series of frontier wars were fought in this region as the trekboere moved inland with their guns and gradually dispossessed the Xhosa, Khoi and San people. The eastern boundary of the Cape was pushed further and further from Cape Town. [To read more about these wars (no fewer than nine in total) visit this site: http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/conquest-eastern-cape-1779-1878.] Some skirmishes were small but others were significant battles, after which the bodies of soldiers were strewn across the battlefield with no one to bury them. In the novel, Poland makes it clear that when no one returns the bones of those who have died to their ancestral places, their shades or ghosts are left to wander aimlessly and cause hardship for those who come after. She does not paint this scenario in a harsh or obvious way, but the title itself implies it and the suffering of the people reflects it. When he first arrives at the mission where he will be stationed, Walter Brownley feels a strange, unsettling sense of predestination. He decides to move away and escape it, but in fact does not. A contagious disease called Rinderpest that “caused ruin and devastation over extensive stretches of country, destroying not only the majority of domestic bovines along its route, but also considerable numbers of indigenous antelopes.  It was estimated that more than two-and-a-half million head of cattle succumbed to it in South Africa alone.” http://www.nda.agric.za/vetweb/History/H_Diseases/H_Animal_Diseases_in%20SA8.htm This happened mainly in the years 1896 to1898.

It is a good idea to follow the link and understand the extent of the problem and how the authorities tried to contain it. Of course there was misunderstanding and resentment on the side of the cattle farmers, and insensitivity and racism on the part of the authorities, to complicate the already fraught situation. The South African War (also called the Boer War) broke out in 1899. This is a huge topic, and you should read about it, too. For a quick overview, the best website is probably http://www.tourismnorthwest.co.za/history/anglo_boer_war.html. The purpose of the site is to promote tourism in North West Province, but it is brief and fair, and a good summary. This guide takes the form of questions that you can think about as you progress through the book. This will facilitate focus and understanding. Questions for the chapters.

Preface: Note that the preface is set just before the end of the novel, so that it is out of sequence. It describes a terrible climax to the story, which actually happens much later, so it introduces the reader to important characters. Note and...
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