The Great Karoo

The Great Karoo

by Fred Stenson

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Overview

From award-winning author Fred Stenson comes a richly evocative new novel, at once brutal and tender, spare of language, and profoundly moving.

The Great Karoo begins in 1899, as the British are trying to wrest control of the riches of South Africa from the Boers, the Dutch farmers who claimed the land. The Boers have turned out to be more resilient than expected, so the British have sent a call to arms to their colonies — and an a great number of men from the Canadian prairies answer the call and join the Canadian Mounted Rifles: a unit in which they can use their own beloved horses. They assume their horses will be able to handle the desert terrain of the Great Karoo as readily as the plains of their homeland. Frank Adams, a cowboy from Pincher Creek, joins the Rifles, along with other young men from the ranches and towns nearby — a mix of cowboys and mounted policeman, who, for whatever reason, feel a desire to fight for the Empire in this far-off war.

Against a landscape of extremes, Frank forms intense bonds with Ovide Smith, a French cowboy who proves to be a reluctant soldier, and Jefferson Davis, the nephew of a prominent Blood Indian chief, who is determined to prove himself in a “white man’s war.” As the young Canadians engage in battle with an entrenched and wily enemy, they are forced to realize the bounds of their own loyalty and courage, and confront the arrogance and indifference of those who have led them into conflict. For Frank, disillusionment comes quickly, and his allegiance to those from the Distict of Alberta, soon displaces any sense of patriotism to Canada or Britain, or belief that he’s fighting for a just cause.

The events of the novel follow the trajectory of the war. The British strategy of burning Boer farms, destroying herds, and moving Boer families into camps weakens the Boer rebels, but they refuse to give up. The thousands of Boer women and children who die in the camp make the war ever more unpopular among liberals in Britain. (In fact, this conflict marked the first use of the term “concentration camp” in war.) Seeing the ramifications of such short-sighted military decisions, and how they affect what happens to Frank and the other Canadians, is crucial to depicting the reality of the Boer War. By focusing on the experiences of a small group of men from southern Alberta, Fred Stenson brings the reality of what it would have been like to be a soldier in this brutal war to vivid life.

The Great Karoo is a deeply satisfying novel, marked by the complexities of its plot, the subtleties of its relationships, and the scale of its terrain. Exhilarating and gruesome by turns, it explores with passion and insight the lasting warmth of friendship and the legacy of devastation occasioned by war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385664066
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Publication date: 09/08/2009
Pages: 608
Product dimensions: 5.65(w) x 8.15(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Fred Stenson was born in Pincher Creek, Alberta, in 1951, and was raised on a farm in ranching country just to the south, near Twin Butte. After attending school in Pincher Creek, he completed a degree in economics at the University of Calgary in 1972. It is his home region — bordered by the Rockies to the west, a Blood Indian reserve to the east, and Montana to the south — that features prominently in much of his historical fiction.

Since his first novel, Lonesome Hero, in 1974, Fred Stenson has published fourteen more books of fiction and non-fiction, and has written scripts for over 140 produced films and videos. It was his masterful third novel, The Trade (2000), which propelled Stenson into the elite ranks of Canadian fiction writers when it was nominated for the Giller Prize, in addition to winning the inaugural Grant MacEwan Writer’s Award, the City of Edmonton Book Prize, and the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Georges Bugnet Novel Award.

Widely praised for its historical depth and vivid prose, The Trade is set in the Canadian West during last days of the fur trade, when the Hudson’s Bay Company traders ruled the rivers far from the eyes of eastern authorities. Stenson’s next novel, Lightning (2003), took up where The Trade left off — when ranching replaced fur trading in the West, and cowboys led vast herds of cattle up through the American states to Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta. Lightning also won the Grant MacEwan Writer’s Award.

The Great Karoo is Fred Stenson’s eighth work of fiction. It follows The Trade and Lightning in telling an epic tale about life in the West through the eyes of regular individuals fighting to make it through each day, despite the large and often indifferent powers that control their fortunes. Today, Fred Stenson lives in Cochrane, Alberta.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue (I)

fort macleod
March 16, 1897

The Concorde stagecoach had been a tarry, shining black when they left the train station in Calgary. Now every surface was dull, and little drifts of yellow sat on the ledges between roof, wall, and wagon. Inside, the schoolteacher pulled back the leather window cover and looked at the Macleod Hotel, where she had reserved a room for the night. An impolite crowd jostled between the coach and the hotel’s door. She slumped back in her seat.

The scald-faced drummer opposite wore a superior smile. He had his fingers stuck in his trouser pockets to the second knuckle, a posture that spread his jacket halves and exaggerated the tightness of his waistcoat. Each button strained and the shiny cloth replicated his seamed flesh in a way the schoolteacher did not want to see. Looking at the floor, she was treated to an image of his fallen socks speckled white with skin. His un-shined shoes tweezed a drab carpet bag, bulging with samples.

She pulled the window blind again and the wind deflected into her face. She saw the bizarre crowd passing, moving within itself like a boiling fudge. Bow-tied storekeepers. Tradesmen in dusty jackets with hanging pockets. Bareheaded people fighting the crowd to chase a hat. The drovers, or “cowboys,” the dandies of this society, wore wide-brimmed chapeaux that seemed glued to their heads. They leaned against the posts that held up the hotel’s overhanging balcony, smoking cigarettes and looking amused.

And Indians! These were mostly in white-man’s clothing but a few had blanket coats cinched at the waist with brass-studded belts. The wild ones had long, loose hair, slung like rags across their starved faces. Children clinging to their legs looked like little cadavers.

She turned to the smug drummer and asked, “Why are so many people here, then?”

For some reason he was holding his breath. The air escaped with a whistle. “Necktie party,” he said.

She hated him, and one of the main reasons was this way of talking. Nothing clear. You had to ask and ask, thus appearing more interested than you were.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Hanging.”

The drummer reached between his feet. He abruptly hoisted himself and his carpet bag, turned the handle, and let the wind slap the door open. He squeezed out through the explosion of wind. Desperately, the schoolteacher plunged after him and stayed in his wake until they were inside. In the sudden relative quiet of the hotel, she said, “And who is to be hanged?”

“Indian, Charcoal. Murdered a Mountie, Wilde.”

“I don’t understand you. A wild Indian?”

“Name of the Mountie he killed was Sergeant Wilde. Shot him.”

A short, stout Englishman was in a cubby behind a flip-up board, keys on hooks behind him. When her turn came to sign the book, he saw her inscribe schoolteacher beside her name and said, “You’d be the miss for Fishburn School, then.” She admitted she was. Next he asked if she was going to the hanging. Beyond his filthy front window, the mass was surging west now, heads thrust into the wind. She certainly would not be, she said. Ignoring her meaning, he told her that he’d given her the second-floor room at the rear, which had a view of the gallows. Then he flipped his counter, squeezed through, clapped on a hat, and ­left.

A pair of boys had brought the luggage in before running off to the hanging. Hers stood by the door. She dragged the two suitcases up through the creaking, booming hotel. It appeared she was the only person present. In her tiny room, she passed the bed and tugged the green paper blind, letting it roll to the top. The dirty little window quaked in dry putty, sprayed cold air, but did provide a fly-specked view of the gallows stage, and the crowd like a dark mat out of which the gibbet thrust.

After a while, men climbed to that stage. She counted four. The condemned man was shackled and handcuffed, and supported by the others. They took off the ankle irons and dragged a bag over his head. The priest, his dress-like garment whipping, aimed his mouth at the condemned man’s ear. Then there were only two: the hangman and his victim.

It was a shocking motion that went up, not down, when the trap door fell. She thought it would be quick but it wasn’t. The Indian kicked and kicked. Until finally he did hang. Deadweight. The school teacher understood the word anew.

Dinner was at two long communal tables. She sought out the drummer. After witnessing the execution, the people in the hotel were excited in a dangerous way. She felt protected against the drummer’s hot, bulky flank. Had she seen the hanging, he asked. Certainly not, she said. He was waiting to be asked what he had seen. She let him wait.

Across the board and down sat a rancher and his wide-eyed son, then an old man with a long white beard like something groomed in a creek bottom, and finally a skinny, nervous youth with boils on his face. All four were bent over their stew. The young fellow with the boils filled the silence as water fills space.

“God’s will. Says right in Exodus. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Hand for hand. Foot for foot. Says again in Leviticus, 24:21: ‘and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.’”

This biblical authority mopped his bowl with a sopping crust. Then the older man beside him began to unbend and rise. He rose and rose, being very tall above the waist. His beard kept coming up as well until its white tail cleared the table. He drew a long handkerchief from his shirt pocket and daintily dabbed his beard. All this unwinding and dabbing was preparation for speech, and when his mouth bloomed pink in his beard, the voice was loud and French.

“Yessir me, I ting dey hang da last wild Indian today.”

The boy was poised to spout more Old Testament, but the old man was not finished.

“Yessir me, I wonder what dey’ll ever do now.”

Prologue (II)

Colenso, Natal
December 16, ­1899

For two days, the British guns had flown their shells over the dozen brick houses of Colenso, blasting the hills on the far side of the Tugela River. The lyddite exploded yellow and the sum of the blasts was a red earth cloud tinged with green. When the smoke and dust cleared, the general’s staff scoped the slopes looking for escaping men. Nothing. They threw in shrapnel rounds but, again, the effect was nil. The hills were as impassive as great ­turds.

On the second afternoon, Gen. Sir Redvers Buller, Red Heifer to the Boers, briefed his senior officers on the plan of attack. On the right, Buller would send Dundonald to fight for a hill that would be their buffer. On the left, Hart’s Irishmen would advance to the river and cross. But the centre was the key. There, Hildyard’s infantry brigades, with artillery support, would cross the Tugela beside the wrecked railway bridge. Then, all together, they would force their way up the hills. They would battle to the besieged town of Ladysmith and free her.

Until two days ago, there’d been a more cautious plan to go around the position. Then came word of General Methuen’s defeat on the Modder River. Red Heifer had seen red. He would pussyfoot no longer. Up the Boer middle he would go. If Louis Botha got in his way, he would smash him and his farmers like so many eggs.

The attack began at daybreak. Buller stood on Naval Gun Hill with his signalmen and staff officers. It did not take long to come apart. Hart had a sketch that showed the drift where he was to cross. He’d been told it was beside a loop in the river, where a creek emptied. Now, for some reason, he was going into the loop. He had been told the loop was a dangerous salient and not to go there. Now a message arrived. Hart could not find the creek and was following a Native guide to some other crossing. Buller sent a galloper back: “Stay out of the loop!” But Hart’s men were already surging into it.

A disturbing sound turned Buller’s attention to the centre. Colonel Long’s fifteen-pound guns were erupting. It was too soon and they were farther away than they should be. Stopford came riding to say that Long was ahead of Hildyard, by at least a mile.

Buller studied the hills in front of which these mistakes were being made in his name. It was not yet seven in the morning. Please, he implored, let those hills be empty. His answer was an abrupt roar of field guns and automatic rifles. Not his.

Much of what came next Buller would find out later. Hart’s masterful packing of the river loop created a target a blind man could not miss. It was enfiladed by Boer trenches on three sides. A private pinned down in the grass said the Mauser bullets came so fast they looked like telegraph wire. Another called it a butcher’s kitchen. The artillery, attempting to adjust to the changed plan, dropped its first shots on top of Hart’s men.

In the centre, Long was wounded through the guts. A third of his men were mown down. His twelve lightest guns were abandoned to the enemy. Only the heavy naval guns, his cow guns, lagged behind enough to be saved. Going forward to survey the mess, Buller took a piece of shell to the ribs. Captain Hughes, his doctor, came to check on him, and was shot through the lungs. Hughes died a bubbling death. In the attempt to retrieve the lost guns, Tommy Roberts, General Lord Roberts’ son, was killed. Buller called it off. Accepted defeat.

The next day, there was a ceasefire. Malay body snatchers hurried the wounded into ambulances. Dotted around the plain were one hundred and forty-three dead.

In the worst places, the river loop and where Long’s guns had been lost, the sound was no longer warlike or even agonized. Often there was a gaping silence, so great and meditative that the occasional thrashing fight to live by horse or man seemed unmannerly, like a dish thrown on a temple floor.

Book One

The Canadian Mounted Rifles

Part One

To Africa

Pincher Creek, December ­1899

Tommy Killam stood with the other children in the crowd on Main Street, come to see the soldiers off to South Africa. Along the hitching post in front of Charlie Beebe’s livery barn, many horses stood saddled. Fred Morden’s bay had a feed bag but the rest were staring miserably at the frozen ground. A Chinook meant it was windy but warm enough that the soldiers could parade without buffalo coats. It would have looked better, thought Tommy, if they all had uniforms and if the uniforms had been the same. As it was, the Mounties had Mountie ones, Fred Morden had a different kind, and the rest were in ranching and cowboy ­clothes.

While his teacher was not looking, Tommy stepped out of line and ­re-­emerged at the corner. He pretended the move was so he could better hear Inspector Davidson, who was answering an earlier speech by Mr. Herron. Davidson was the Mountie in charge of the Pincher Creek detachment, and a terrible speaker who was trying to say how honoured he was to be an officer with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Second Battalion; and how . . . honoured he was to lead such fine brave soldiers as these into the . . . honourable war for freedom in South ­Africa.

The real reason Tommy moved was to have a better look at Fred Morden. The Mordens were Killam’s next-door neighbours on the north side of the creek, and though Tommy was only ten and Morden grown up enough to go to war, they were friends. Fred let Tommy come over and take his coyote hounds for runs in the hills. When Tommy’s father gave him a .22 rifle off their store shelves at Christmas, it was Morden who took him to the canyon and taught him to hit tomato cans. Fred Morden had said many times, “Here’s my good friend Tommy.”

On Sundays, in good weather, Morden and his friends, including his girlfriend Trudy Black, went coyote hunting with hounds. They dressed up and pretended it was an English fox hunt. Tommy was not allowed to go but attended the punch parties afterwards, either in Morden’s yard or in their front room depending on the weather. Tommy was given a glass of punch like everyone else while he fooled with the tired ­dogs.

For the last two months, the parties had consisted less of jokes and more of Fred Morden explaining to the others why they had to fight in South Africa.

“You can’t be part of an Empire, enjoying its fruits, and not do your part.”

When Canada sent its first thousand troops, they were infantry from eastern militias. Fred called it an outrage and said Canada’s westerners must demand their right to fight. When the Canadian Mounted Rifles was formed, based on Mountie officers and western troopers, Tommy told Inspector Davidson to count him in. “Part of the fun,” he told his friends, was that they could take their own ­horses.

Tommy Killam didn’t try to sound like Fred Morden around his own friends. It just came out that ­way.

Reading Group Guide

1. Did Frank Adams ever figure out why he volunteered to go to war, and then stayed on so long? Why do you think he did so, ultimately?

2. In a war, honour — for oneself and for one’s country is often the ultimate goal. What does honour mean in this novel? Who would you consider to be the most honourable character, and why?

3. For the most part, Ovide Smith allows the war to happen around him, showing disinterest except when it comes to caring for the horses. He spends much of his time fighting illness. What is it about Ovide that causes Frank to feel such a bond with him? How does it compare with Frank’s attachment to Jeff Davis?

4. Do you feel like you understand Alice Kettle’s motivation for disguising herself as a man and coming to Africa, or is she too much of a mystery? Why does she abandon Lionel Brooke, yet return to the war?

5. The British generals and other military leaders are shown in a particularly harsh light in this novel: disorganized and misguided at best, brutal and callous at worst. How do Frank and the others shift their notions of loyalty as a result?

6. Jeff Davis is half Native, yet volunteers to participate in what is essentially a British war and “a white man’s war.” Jimmy Whitford, a Crow Métis, and Young Sam, of the Nez Perce First Nation, enter the South African war as employees of an English-Canadian rancher. Discuss the role of the native characters in this novel. In what ways does Stenson compare the plight of Canada’s First Nations and Métis peoples to the hardships faced by black Africans?

7. What are the major factors that shaped Jeff Davis’s character during the war? Do you agree with Frank’s opinion that Jeff’s extreme bravery and heroism grow out of a death wish?

8. What is the most heartbreaking story or event in this novel?

9. Discuss the role of historical fiction in both preserving the past as it is and shedding new light on it. What is a novelist’s responsibility to historical accuracy? What do you think of Stenson’s portrayal of the war, and the soldiers’ individual experiences?

10. Why does the novel open with two prologues? How do they set up this novel?

11. Many of the characters in The Great Karoo are based on ordinary people — not only major figures. For instance, Robert Kerr, Fred Morden, and Ovide Smith are men from Pincher Creek in the District of Alberta, who did in fact die in the war; and Jeff Davis was a scout in the Mounted Rifles and the Canadian Scouts. What do you think Fred Stenson is looking to achieve with this novel (and others), in terms of western Canadian history?

12. Crossing the Great Karoo, Frank decides it is like “a moose to a horse” — at once familiar and yet terribly strange. Compare the experiences of the main characters in the African desert to what life was like in Canada’s West at the time. Can you draw parallels between the Boers in Africa and the ranchers and homesteaders of Alberta?

13. Discuss the overall structure of this novel. For instance, why does Stenson bring us back to General Butler so often, and his assessment of the war from England? Why do three parts in the book deal with Tommy Killam back in Pincher Creek?

14. What is the significance of General Butler’s correspondence with Red Crow in terms of Butler’s outlook on his own life and the war? Discuss the importance of correspondence throughout the novel: Jeff’s letter from Red Crow, the letters carried by Lionel Brooke and Jim Whitfield, the dispatches carried by the scouts, the impact of letters from home, etc.

15. The final section of the book, part twelve, begins well after the war has ended and is separated into three parts: 1910, 1925, and 1942. What effect did this ending have on you, considering the extensive and in-depth account of the war that makes up the rest of the novel?

16. Though we spend the majority of the novel in Frank’s perspective, it’s only at the end that he speaks to us directly as readers when he talks about his attempts to write a war memoir forty years later. Why does Stenson make this shift?

Foreword

1. Did Frank Adams ever figure out why he volunteered to go to war, and then stayed on so long? Why do you think he did so, ultimately?

2. In a war, honour — for oneself and for one’s country is often the ultimate goal. What does honour mean in this novel? Who would you consider to be the most honourable character, and why?

3. For the most part, Ovide Smith allows the war to happen around him, showing disinterest except when it comes to caring for the horses. He spends much of his time fighting illness. What is it about Ovide that causes Frank to feel such a bond with him? How does it compare with Frank’s attachment to Jeff Davis?

4. Do you feel like you understand Alice Kettle’s motivation for disguising herself as a man and coming to Africa, or is she too much of a mystery? Why does she abandon Lionel Brooke, yet return to the war?

5. The British generals and other military leaders are shown in a particularly harsh light in this novel: disorganized and misguided at best, brutal and callous at worst. How do Frank and the others shift their notions of loyalty as a result?

6. Jeff Davis is half Native, yet volunteers to participate in what is essentially a British war and “a white man’s war.” Jimmy Whitford, a Crow Métis, and Young Sam, of the Nez Perce First Nation, enter the South African war as employees of an English-Canadian rancher. Discuss the role of the native characters in this novel. In what ways does Stenson compare the plight of Canada’s First Nations and Métis peoples to the hardships faced by black Africans?

7. What are the major factors that shaped Jeff Davis’scharacter during the war? Do you agree with Frank’s opinion that Jeff’s extreme bravery and heroism grow out of a death wish?

8. What is the most heartbreaking story or event in this novel?

9. Discuss the role of historical fiction in both preserving the past as it is and shedding new light on it. What is a novelist’s responsibility to historical accuracy? What do you think of Stenson’s portrayal of the war, and the soldiers’ individual experiences?

10. Why does the novel open with two prologues? How do they set up this novel?

11. Many of the characters in The Great Karoo are based on ordinary people — not only major figures. For instance, Robert Kerr, Fred Morden, and Ovide Smith are men from Pincher Creek in the District of Alberta, who did in fact die in the war; and Jeff Davis was a scout in the Mounted Rifles and the Canadian Scouts. What do you think Fred Stenson is looking to achieve with this novel (and others), in terms of western Canadian history?

12. Crossing the Great Karoo, Frank decides it is like “a moose to a horse” — at once familiar and yet terribly strange. Compare the experiences of the main characters in the African desert to what life was like in Canada’s West at the time. Can you draw parallels between the Boers in Africa and the ranchers and homesteaders of Alberta?

13. Discuss the overall structure of this novel. For instance, why does Stenson bring us back to General Butler so often, and his assessment of the war from England? Why do three parts in the book deal with Tommy Killam back in Pincher Creek?

14. What is the significance of General Butler’s correspondence with Red Crow in terms of Butler’s outlook on his own life and the war? Discuss the importance of correspondence throughout the novel: Jeff’s letter from Red Crow, the letters carried by Lionel Brooke and Jim Whitfield, the dispatches carried by the scouts, the impact of letters from home, etc.

15. The final section of the book, part twelve, begins well after the war has ended and is separated into three parts: 1910, 1925, and 1942. What effect did this ending have on you, considering the extensive and in-depth account of the war that makes up the rest of the novel?

16. Though we spend the majority of the novel in Frank’s perspective, it’s only at the end that he speaks to us directly as readers when he talks about his attempts to write a war memoir forty years later. Why does Stenson make this shift?

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Great Karoo 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
ElizaJane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a tale of the Boer War and the Canadians who fought in it. The story focuses on the First Canadian Mounted Rifles and also briefly concerns the Royal Dragoons and the Lord Strathcona Horse (of which I was an army wife many years ago). These are all Canadian Mounted troops. While the book is about the war it mainly focuses on Frank Adams, an Albertan ranch hand, and the friends he goes to war with and the people he meets on the front line. The main focus is on the people and relationships and their reactions to the events around them but there is also a lot of background on the war and military politics.This is a tough book for me to review as it really didn't do it for me, whatever "it" may be. A lot of characters are introduced right away; some are major characters, other minor and yet others who fleet in and out of the book. Typically I enjoy a large cast of characters in my books but I found it hard to identify with anyone and with two characters called Frank and Fred I frequently got mixed up and had to keep looking at the jacket flap to see which one was the main character. (Frank). The middle part of the book focuses on the military aspects of the war, the battles, the politics and I found that when characters starting dying (this is a war after all) it really didn't affect me as I'd never developed a relationship with them at this point and also up to this point I found the book a slow read. Though I never lost interest enough to put it down.The last third of the book is when things seem to pick up. The characters are familiar enough to have some meaning to the reader and I found the story more interesting from this point on and found the ending satisfying. In summary, I found the book contained too much describing and telling rather than characterization and personally I'm all about the characters when it comes to books I love. The writing is good and while I wasn't thrilled with it; it did manage to keep me reading for close to 500 pages. It simply just didn't do "it" for me, for whatever reason. Your mileage may vary.
ripleyy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not much happened for long stretches in this book and while I'm sure that was true in the real war, it didn't make for riveting reading. Historians will likely find much to enjoy but it wasn't the book for me.
delan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Great Karoo is a large rollicking novel covering a large chunk of time and space. It stretches across some 500 pages to present the story of Frank Adams, a Canadian cowboy, who joins a Canadian horse unit to fight with the British against the Boers in south Africa in the early days of the twentieth century. Stenson presents an interesting mix of history and fiction by concentrating on the life of Adams from a young man looking for adventure to a seasoned veteran of the war, to, finally, the old man in 1942 privately assessing his time as a soldier as another war rages in Europe. At one level the book provides a close look at the disasters of the Boer War: the violence, heroism, brutality, drunkenness, rage, and love that war brings to the human experience. On another level it tells a story of the growth of a boy into a man. On the way there is friendship and connection, betrayal and cruelty, and the necessary components of change. One of the threads that runs through the tapestry of the story is the interesting and at times moving story of the horses that have travelled with the men from Canada to the war. Their suffering is as severe as the suffering of the men, and, of course, they have not volunteered.Frank Adams wrestles with all of these confrontations as we watch him grow and learn more about himself, his fellow soldiers, and the enemy. He falls in love with a young woman and his attempts to connect with her are presented with sensitivity and warmth. After he returns safely to Alberta, Adams raises a family and lives an ordinary life. His family wants him to write a memoir of the war and after much urging he tries. He writes a total of twelve pages and then, "When I get up from this table, I will make a fire in the wood stove. Then I will feed this memoir to that fire, every page. Back in the Great Karoo when I kept telling myself it was a moose to a horse, that was the closest I came to understanding. The whole war was like that. We travelled inside it.""We travelled inside it.| " Indeed we do travel inside our own story. It is only after the fact that we can, in an attempt to write it down, come to see the events as connected in some way. Stenson provides the overview for this character's life by telling Frank Adams' s story.The Great Karoo is an honest gritty tale of a time that helped to define where we are today. It is, for the most part, presented with skill and power.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am very late in writing this review but I struggled to finish this book. It is a magnificent achievement , a novel rich in history of both Alberta, Canada and the Boer War in South Africa. I loved how it started with just rwo boys from Pincher Creek, Alberta. The biggest adventure of their lives might have been a trip to the big city of Calgary, but they were about to experience the world. Their first stop was Regina, Saskatchewan for training with their horses. I have read many history books about the Boer war but I had never considered it form the point of view of the colonial troops. A Canadian cowboy was so far removed from any of the competing interests in this war it seems almost ludicrous that he was there at all. There was so much human suffering and slaughter of civilians in this war but the story of the horses is still a very painful read. Stenson obviously knows horses and also understands the human bond between a man and his horse.While I applaud the achievement of the author this just wasn't a book I really enjoyed. Like some of the other reviewers I struggled to keep the characters straight and at times there simply was too much detail. This is not the fault of the author, sometimes even a great book just doesn't do it for an individual reader.
Cynara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On the whole, a good novel. Stenson's characters take a little time to come to life, but once they do their adaptation to war on the other side of the world and their quiet, freighted friendships with each other and their horses (the horses, the horses, the horses) are involving. I found the infantry's-eye view of the Boer war interesting, though at times I thought it was Stenson's extensive research, not the narrative, that motivated paragraphs on troop movements. It's worth reading, and I'm curious to see if I revisit it. I'm sure there's more be gleaned from the story and symbolism.
cland on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love being able to discuss local authors like Fred Stenson. This is a weighty book that will stay with you as you read it, due to its language and careful plotting. The mixture of truth and fiction works on so many different levels for the reader, and is great for someone who gravitates to historical fiction. The hardcover edition, out now, is a nice looking volume with a good heft to it. It's not something I would have picked out for myself, but that's why I love LibraryThing.
Deesirings on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a novel about Canadian soldiers in the Boer War. It centres on Frank Adams, and his experiences. In the very last segment of the novel, it is forty years after the war and Frank, at his family's instigation, has written memoirs of his experience in the Boer War. He says he has read all he could find about the Boer War and found that "they don't contain the feeling of being there." Unfortunately, Frank finds his own memoirs to suffer from the same condition. He acknowledges having left out all the interesting parts and explains why he did so.This novel is Stenson's attempt at giving the account with the interesting parts, of conveying the feeling of being there. For the most part, Stenson is successful. He goes beyond the places and dates (which appear to be accurately based on historical research, though I could not say for sure) and conveys the feeling of being there. He does this first through on-going description of scenery, of the rhythm and routine of the war -- for example, mentioning on many occasions the lice that were an on-going part of the experience for the soldiers, the food or lack thereof, the thirst and the disease that came with the water on so many occasions, the seasons and what they represented in terms of fighting, with the Boers essentially hibernating in the winter months (i.e. what would be the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere), the uniforms, the ranks, the battles, the trains, the equipment, the need for boots and what would happen to feet without them, etc.Stenson also conveys the feeling of the war in exploring relationships, not only between the soldiers but also, for example, between the men and their horses, one of the more enticing and touching aspects of this novel for me. I did come to grow attached to Frank Adams, but it took me nearly three-quarters of the novel before I did. At just under 500-pages, this novel is perhaps a little lengthier than average but does not appear unduly long. This is misleading. For me, each page was lengthy and required constant focus. Part of it is that I just do not enjoy action-packed military novels. Any description of any battle is likely to require more mental energy than I'd like to commit as a reader. But part of it was also with the writing style, which I found not straight-forward enough for the subject matter. For example, referring to characters by both either their first or last names (instead of always the same way), sometimes even in the same sentence, made it difficult to keep track of who was who. (Lionel and Brookes are the same fellow, for example.) Major events, like the death of many soldiers, might take place in one sentence amidst a paragraph that would appear to be simply descriptive of scenery. I found myself re-reading almost everything twice. Given all this, I spent perhaps more time reading this book than I have ever spent on any one book. I definitely would not have even started this book (much less finished it), had I not been given a copy to review here. I found it long and sluggish and yet, I can't say it was not well-written. It was just written in a style that did not work well for me, as a reader.One thing I can say very positively about this book is that, unlike many books written from a male perspective or involving the "masculine sphere" of military or political activity, it did not leave me perplexed by men's actions or motivations or with a distaste for the men presented as characters. Frank Adams and most of the other soldiers seemed believable, understandable. It made the men seem human and earthly (and not from Mars, as many men in novels appear to me).All told, I think I am enriched for having read this book and I think the author does achieve what he has set out to do -- describe the feeling of the war. I would have appreciated it if he would have done it in half the words, though.
VivienneR on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although Fred Stenson¿s book of magnum opus stature is a fictionalized, historically accurate story of the Boer War, many of the names are those of real people. This gave the story a reality and personal connection that is compelling. Many of the names are still familiar in Alberta, such as Greisbach, Steele, Borden, and others. The author has the ability to create for the reader the feeling of being there. This is an excellent book that would make a great movie with characters that are at once ordinary and extraordinary. Stenson has insured that his readers become involved with a tale that will linger in your mind long after the last page.