Slavery Past & Present: A review of Cane Warriors

In my last post I spoke about shadowing the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Award for children’s literature. Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatley is a Young Adult novel on the shortlist for the Carnegie section of this award. I began reading it on a recent road trip to Johannesburg, a part of South Africa in which I grew up. Images of my happy childhood flashed through my mind as we travelled: roads with no shoulder; steel window frames (that would rust in ten minutes in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal – KZN – I now call home); cold crisp night times; deciduous trees shedding barrow loads of autumn leaves; and brown grass that indicates a no-winter rainfall area. This latter is especially meaningful when considered against the terrible floods KZN experienced in April 2022. As I am writing this, access to municipal water is still in question in KZN after aqueducts and wastewater treatment plants were ripped apart in a matter of hours, cutting off water supply to thousands. After frightening and destructive political riots in the province nine months earlier, and job-shedding generally because of COVID lockdowns over the last two years, KZN indeed feels like a beleaguered province. Although hardly a paradise, Johannesburg felt like a good escape for me from the burdens of home. And I could be with friends and family for whom KZN’s issues were intangible. Unless you physically and geographically experience something, it can be easy to miss the gravity of it.

And I think the British slave trade of the 1700s that Wheatle speaks of in the afterword of Cane Warriors is a bit like that: if you weren’t a slave it is easy now to gloss over this dreadful time in history. What Wheatle does in Cane Warriors is to bring to life, for the uninitiated reader, this period in history in the form of a small battle. A battle in which a historical warrior named Tacky instigates a fierce uprising amongst some of the slaves in Jamaica. It’s interesting that instead of Tacky, for his protagonist Wheatle uses a young (presumably fictional) boy named Moa. Moa, at fourteen years of age, joins his special friend Keverton and a group of older men led by Tacky, in the focused killing of slave masters. They do this in an effort to free their fellow slaves and to set up homes and vocations for themselves. I really felt myself rooting for Moa and Keverton’s dreams of future families. But at the same time I dreaded what I knew must be the outcome: failure. And indeed this is what happens. Despite killing several landowners the rebellion is fairly quickly quashed and work on the cane plantations resumes.

What Moa has to do is way beyond what I would ever have been called on to do at fourteen: murder cruel white masters. Although quite gruesome, Wheatle’s narrative is not beyond a YA audience. He has created a young hero with whom the reader can empathise. And he has created for the YA audience an important text. One in which they will begin to appreciate the depths of what it must mean to be owned by another human being and used merely for the enormous financial gain of another. Whilst the narration of Cane Warriors is in plain English the dialogue is in Jamaican English dialect. I found this quite difficult to understand to begin with – as other readers might do – but I soon got into it. There are many instances of humour that the language elicits too, which makes it enjoyable. 

But more than bringing to life something from the hidden past, Wheatle’s Cane Warriors makes the subject of slavery relevant to today. His story, with characters the reader is drawn to, shows the important way fiction can speak to prevailing problems. And in the afterword Wheatle writes of his vociferous support for slave reparations now, and mentions Amnesty International’s current work against modern-day slavery. This further adds to the text’s relevance.

While in Johannesburg I continued to enjoy my reminiscing. But it didn’t take away from the problems that waited for me back home. The floods have changed our province and its people, and repair work must begin.

Shadowing Children’s Book Awards

Have you heard of ‘shadowing’ book awards? The Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards is an annual award that honours exceptional writing and illustration in books for children. Book reading groups can sign up on the website to ‘shadow’ the awards process. This involves choosing books from the longlist, and then the shortlist, reading and discussing the books, and then posting reviews on the site. The Carnegie section of the award is for superb writing, and is named after Andrew Carnegie, a nineteenth-century champion of libraries. The Kate Greenaway section awards outstanding illustration, and is named after a nineteenth-century artist known for her children’s illustrations. Whilst the shadowing process is aimed at young people, I belong to a shadowing group of adults who are interested in children’s literature. When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten is a Carnegie longlisted book we read recently.

When Life Gives You Mangoes is a beautifully told tale of friendship between children, the heartbreak of losing that friendship, and the difficulty of adjusting to life without them. Protagonist Clara lives in Sycamore in the formerly colonised Caribbean, an area prone to tropical storms, and good for fishing and surfing. Sycamore is a small village peopled with unique characters, like the grumpy Ms Gee, the dishonest and judgmental Pastor Brown, the new girl, Rudy, Clara’s outcast Uncle Eldorath, and snobby Gaynah, Clara’s best friend.

Clara and Gaynah fall out with each other and Clara teams up instead with Rudy, Ms Gee’s granddaughter who has recently arrived from England. Through childhood games like ‘pick leaf’ and ‘make believe’ it becomes apparent that Clara has suffered a trauma that has to do with the sea and which she can’t remember. A former budding surfer, Clara will now not go anywhere near the sea, much to her parents’ concern. Clara’s parents try to help her by taking her to the Bishop but this initiative fails. When Clara draws closer to her Uncle Eldorath she discovers that the two of them share a history of loss. Through their relationship Eldorath is restored to the community of which he was an outcast, and Clara remembers the event that has so changed her life. She is finally able to put the past to rest and renew her love of surfing and the sea.

Secrets abound in this novel and Kereen Getten constructs these carefully throughout, disclosing them all right near the end. They include broken relationships, death and the heart of community. This keeps the reader glued to the page. Each character is unique and well-drawn, and the friendship highs and lows between Clara, Gaynah and Rudy so age appropriate. Clara’s parents are depicted as ordinary, loving, concerned parents and Clara’s bond with them is touching, particularly with that of her father. The challenges experienced through island living and destructive tropical storms create an authentic setting, especially as they relate to small communities.

When Life Gives you Mangoes is an excellent book for middle grade readers, detailing the small issues of friendships and relationships that mean everything to children at this age. It also gently covers the heartbreaking subject of what it is to lose a best friend to death, and the process required in coming to terms with that. I was pleased to have been part of shadowing this beautiful book. I highly recommend it.

Mosley – A Value-Driven, Different Tale

Mosley is an unusual and gently told animated film aimed at children. The story revolves around an intelligent, talking species called thoriphants who look a bit like elephants but with pointed ears, tusks and no trunk. They are enslaved by humans who give the thoriphants no credit for their intelligence and dignity. Through one particular thoriphant – Mosley – and his family, we see how the species longs to be able to walk upright and have fingers, as their ancestors did. The adventure sees Mosely rising up to defend his family from the humans, searching for his long-lost ancestors, and breaking free of his bonds.

An adult might easily see in Mosley a picture of human slavery and the denigration of one people group by another. Even young children will at least recognise elements of unfairness, cruelty and oppression. Whether slavery, or simple prejudice, the representation in Mosley could make for a good discussion between adults and children on the subjects of injustice and worthwhile values.

Mosley is unusual in its use of Christian/biblical images. Mosley’s search for his ancestors takes him back to an Eden-like place, where we see in stylistic form images of the fruit and tree of life, and a force (God?) outside of Mosley who helps Mosley in his hour of greatest need. This idea of faith in a higher being as opposed to faith simply within oneself contrasts with that in typical Disney films which usually feature the latter. For example, when told to ‘believe inside his heart’, Rue, Mosley’s little son, says ‘but it can’t just be in my heart, it must be real’.

But more than a journey of faith, Mosley gives us images of cave paintings, ancient warriors, lost cities in the jungle, extinction and de-extinction. These trouble the film, preventing it from being too simplistic. Even these elements are further complicated when we see that the thoriphant ancestors seem to be more advanced than the thoriphants who came after them.

In many American films the baddies speak with an English accent, the goodies with an American one. In Mosley this trend is reversed. Of course, this observation is primed when the viewer sees at the start of the movie that Mosley is a New Zealand/Chinese production, rather than the ubiquitous American one. Parents, take your children to see Mosley. It is well worth it for its difference and important values. Mosley opens in South African cinemas today, 31 January 2020.

Image: from Mosley Facebook page.

Noddy Comes to (My) Life

One of my earliest memories of books was Noddy Goes to Toyland and Noddy and his Car by Enid Blyton. These were borrowed from the library on several of my family’s fortnightly evening visits there. Too impatient to wait until we got home to read them, I would snatch looks at the pages each time my father’s car drove past a streetlight.

 

Noddy buys a build-it-yourself house with Big Ears’ help

Who wouldn’t want a ‘dear little house’ like this one?

When it came to daytime playtime my enthusiastic reading of Noddy became part of my life. I had been struck, you see, by the ease in Noddy Goes to Toyland with which Noddy moved into Toyland and built a house. I think I also fancied the idea that Noddy had run away from his previous home in search of independence. This independence was especially evident when Noddy hired himself out as a taxi driver in Noddy and his Car. Live by yourself in a dear little house! Earn money by working! Oh yes, this was going to be the life for me. And so I travelled around our suburban streets on my tricycle (which had a passenger seat), pretending I was Noddy in his car. And I moved things around in my bedroom to simulate Noddy’s own house.

 

 

 

But not being able to pipe running water into my own bedroom flummoxed me, and using a basin of water would not have been sustainable. Unlike Noddy, who turned to Big Ears to help him problem-solve issues with his unhappy car passengers, I didn’t ask anyone for help solving my water crisis. Thus ended my pursuit of complete independence. Real life was not so simple after all.

Noddy’s ‘bathroom’

Noddy’s delightful car

Noddy was a wooden toy, though, a toy, who, somewhat reminiscent of Pinnochio, had been carved by a carpenter. Unlike Pinnochio, who wanted to be a real boy, Noddy wanted to remain a toy. Likewise, I like to think that – even as a child of four or five – I knew that none of Noddy and his lifestyle was or could be real. Noddy was a toy after all and his and my forays into games were just that – games. I simply, and willingly, entered into a ‘contract of make believe’ with my books.

 

 

Admiring Boldness

Revolting Rhymes is a splendid rewrite by Roald Dahl of seven well-known fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Dahl not only retells the stories with modern (the book was published in 1982) language and characters. He also infuses the tales with his own moral message. So, Cinderella advocates that marriage be underscored by decency, rather than princedom and money; and Jack and the Beanstalk says that daily bathing has its rewards!

Adults will be highly amused by the twist on Little Red Riding Hood who ‘whipped a pistol from her knickers’ and shot the wolf. The hooded maiden also appears in the Three Little Pigs where she helps the pigs overcome the wolf and, er, overcomes the third little pig too.

I don’t pretend to have done an academic study of Roald Dahl’s work. But on first glance at these clever, hilarious tales I do wonder if Revolting Rhymes may be viewed today as ‘politically incorrect’. And in a way I admire them for that. I appreciate them for their difference, their astuteness, and their boldness in today’s politically correct world.

I also respect the latest theatre release, Overcomer, for its boldness. Overcomer follows the story of young teen, Hannah Scott, whose life is changed when she takes up cross country running at her school. Through her running coach, John Harrison, Hannah meets the father (Thomas Hill) she never knew, excels at something for the first time in her life (running), and becomes certain of who she is.

But what I admire most about the movie is its clearly Christian message. The script of Overcomer doesn’t just proffer gentle, politically correct ‘message marketing’. It resolutely champions the Christian belief of repentance, redemption and forgiveness.

There is lots wrong with this film. It’s overly sentimental and dramatic, and confuses success with salvation. Nevertheless, I applaud it for its unequivocal focus on Jesus Christ and Christian new birth. And that in a world that is so politically correct that many messages are diluted so as not to be offensive.

Overcomer opens at cinemas in South Africa today 30 August 2019.

Greed, Need & Climate Change

Images of Sudan staggering on painful legs brought tears to my eyes. At the sight of his painful, oozing sores the tears flowed down my cheeks. And when Sudan was finally euthanised to the obvious distress of his carers, I had to mop my chin and blow my nose. What made Sudan’s death more tragic was the fact that he was the last male northern white rhino – in the world – to die. The species was effectively extinct. And then, wonderfully, the veterinarians who attended Sudan’s last moments withdrew his DNA. And with this DNA will be able to resurrect the species. Good news from bad. But I have to wonder: when this magnificent creature once again browses the grasslands of Kenya (or elsewhere) will it be as relentlessly hunted as before? After all, man’s greed and concomitant need is something that has yet to be addressed.

This children’s book by Dr Seuss promotes care for the environment

I had been watching Sudan’s story in the form of a documentary called Kifaru (kifaru is the Swahili for rhinoceros) which was screened at the 2019 Durban International Film Festival. Another festival documentary that highlighted both the greed and the need of man was Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. Briefly, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall is the story of how Sasol established a refinery in the American town of Mossville. How Sasol’s gigantic, emissions-producing setup chased people from their homes, and gave them in return very little in compensation and a whole host of social and health problems. Sasol and other large companies continue seemingly unabated.

These and other documentaries show how humans are fuelled by both greed and need. And by consequence how climate change is also fuelled by both greed and need. These documentaries are distressing to watch. And messages about climate change that are coming thick and fast are also distressing. Bad news indeed. Glimmers of hope glow when scientists speak of climate change solutions in the form of renewable energy sources (see Climate Change: The Facts BBC Earth). But even these messages are confusing. Visit Renewable Energy is a Scam  and see possible drawbacks of renewables. The speaker in this video is pro-nuclear as an alternate source of energy.

Views of Germany’s Rhine River and Mainz. Germany is committed to denuclearisation within the next decade.

One climate change solution posed in the BBC programme stands out for me, however. Stem our throwaway culture. This solution I think addresses – at least ideologically – one half of the world’s greed, the other half’s need, and what both greed and its concomitant need have done to accelerate climate change.

Now that you’re here,

the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear,

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

(from The Lorax, Dr Seuss)

 

 

The Stories Behind Writers

Aren’t you curious about writers? The faces behind the words you read, what inspired them as writers, who they are, how they write? I know I am. And judging by two films and one series I watched recently so are others. All three focus on writers, their lives, experiences and influences. They are: Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder (2018 film), Tolkien (2019 film) and Little Women (BBC television series 2017).

Of the three Agatha and the Truth of Murder was the one I liked least. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie plots. And this film addresses Christie’s own doubts about the predictability of her stories. In real life Agatha Christie went ‘missing’ for a number of days during her career and Agatha and the Truth of Murder is an imaginative story of how Christie might have spent that mysterious time. The writers place Christie squarely in an actual murder case which she is forced to solve. This experience ultimately helps her own writing – or so the story goes. The point made by the film is that an author’s lived experiences informs their writing.

Tolkien makes this very point clearly. In this film, however, what is portrayed may reflect actual events in the author’s life. The film is an in-depth, sensitive biography of the famous author’s formative years and how the many influences in his life ultimately had great bearing on his famous works. His poverty, orphanhood, intelligence, love of language, and desire for friendship all influenced the man and the writer he became. His romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, which ultimately matured into marriage was an integral part of his life. And WWI, which cut through everything – his studies, career, romance and friendship circle – profoundly affected the man and writer he became.

Slightly more subtle on the theme of experiences influencing writing is the BBC television series Little Women based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. Of the four sisters in Little Women, Jo March was the writer. She wrote initially because she loved writing. Then she wrote out of necessity. And finally she wrote out of pain, as a way to process the death of her beloved sister, Beth. Jo’s life circumstances obviously influenced the writer she became.

Practical Criticism or New Criticism is a branch of literary theory that studies the form of texts. The theory disregards author intention and reader response. There is certainly merit to this approach to studying literature, especially with poems or stories for which the reader has no idea of the author’s intent.

However, I just can’t help wondering… What influences of your life can be brought to bear on the writer you are?

 

 

The Lion King: Animation or CGI?

It’s 25 years this year since The Lion King animated movie released. Two thousand and nineteen sees a computer-animated (or computer-generated imagery, CGI) re-release of the same story. The visuals in this new release are absolutely stunning. And the same unforgettable music that defined the first one is used, such as Hakuna Matata, Nants’ Ingonyama and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

The same well-rounded, satisfying coming-of-age story features. A young lion, Simba, is destined to be king. Through the machinations of his evil uncle, Scar, tragedy strikes Pride Rock and Simba flees. He befriends a comic warthog and meerkat pair who teach him not to worry about anything. Simba then spends his days avoiding his past, shirking his responsibilities, and generally living in a world that doesn’t function as it should. Duty calls, however, and Simba returns to Pride Rock to put things right.

The 1994 The Lion King was the very first video (note: not DVD) owned by my – then very young – children. It was also the only one for a long time. Hence it was watched over and over again and my children and I became brilliant at quoting lines and singing music lyrics.

Timon and Pumbaa, and their counterparts the snivelling, servile, sneaky hyenas became embedded in our memories. The well-defined characters of Mufasa and his anti-hero brother Scar (Simba’s father and uncle respectively) and their motives were clear in our minds. And the emotions invoked by music, romance, visuals of the beautiful African plains, and the tragedy of death will remain with us forever.

Gosh, I’m being dramatic and terribly nostalgic here. But I couldn’t stop comparing the two films while watching the new one.

So how does the new The Lion King compare to the old? I think the old one edges out this exceptional new version. There’s just something about animation. Even young children know that animation is not ‘real’. In animation comedy, accidents, dialogue and drama can all be ramped up. This heightens the entertainment for the viewer. As marvellous as this computer animated The Lion King is, it looks so real that I think the antics have to be dialled back so as to be in keeping with the ‘realness’ of the medium. And in that you lose something.

The Lion King opens at cinemas in South Africa on 19 July 2019. Don’t miss it.

 

Aladdin

Why You Should Watch Aladdin

The children’s film, Aladdin, released at cinemas in South Africa aladdinrecently. It is based on the story Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and explores the themes of power and desire. The clever, satisfying ending makes the moral of the story clear for viewers: Your motives are powerful; be careful of them because, unchecked, they can lead to your destruction.

For parents keen to expose their children to films and stories that provoke interesting, worthwhile discussions I recommend Aladdin. But parental guidance is advised. This 2019 version is very similar to the 1992 animated one – funny, endearing and entertaining. However, this year’s film stars real people. Without the barrier of cartoon characters the romance between Aladdin and the princess Jasmine seems inappropriate for very small children. (Of course, this point is mild when you compare it to one of the older written versions of the story. In the latter, Aladdin spends the night with the princess after having lured an earlier suitor out of the way!)

aladdinBriefly, the story Aladdin opens with an unlikely hero: a poor, fatherless, young thief named Aladdin. The antagonist is a powerful man called Jafar, counsellor to the country’s Sultan. Jafar wants the Sultan’s powerful position for himself. Desire (for position and power). Aladdin – to put it crudely – wants the Sultan’s daughter (Jasmine) for himself. Desire (for riches and love). The source of empowerment in the story is a supposed magic lamp which contains a genie who is able to grant the lamp keeper’s wishes. Jafar and Aladdin vie for the lamp and this creates the conflict in the story.

Whilst the genie has the power to grant the wishes, the genie’s power is directed by the wishes and desires of the one who owns the lamp. He is enslaved to whoever commands him. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Genie’s enslavement is a picture of what our own desires do to us: they gradually enslave us.

As the struggle intensifies both Aladdin and Jafar become more desperate to have their thwarted desires met. And their desires escalate; instead of wanting only to be sultan Jafar eventually wants to become the most powerful genie in the land. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). For his part Aladdin is tempted to go back on his word in order to get what he wants.

Conniving and betrayal make up both Jafar’s and Aladdin’s journeys until the final scenes of the film see Jafar’s wish to be the most powerful genie coming true. But the benefits of Jafar’s new position (in particular) don’t quite live up to his expectations!

The Christian Bible essentially teaches the same idea. Romans 6:16 says: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Watch Aladdin with your children and discuss how the different characters (including Abu, Aladdin’s monkey!):

  • are tempted,
  • what desires within the characters are stirred by those temptations,
  • and the consequences of giving in to those temptations.

Talk about Aladdin:

  • do you think he was a ‘better person’ than Jafar was?
  • were Aladdin’s desires ‘more worthy’ than Jafar’s?
  • could Aladdin have had the same end as Jafar did? How? Why?