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.

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The Magic World of Fiction

Tired of your daily diet of news? Want to escape into the world of fantasy? Hamilton Wende’s Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu are just the right books for you to do that. Wende has created a unique South African tale about a little girl called Arabella who lives both in the real world and in the magic one.

In Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut Arabella’s happy home life in Johannesburg is tragically altered by the death of her father to cancer. At around the same time Arabella meets some unusual characters who teach her how to enter the world of magic. Wonder of wonders Arabella turns into a butterfly, learns to fly and befriends a bunch of insects in her garden. But even in the magic world there are difficulties and Arabella, together with her insect friends, is called upon to use her newfound powers to defeat a dark enemy intent on taking over the world.

Wende cleverly intersects Arabella’s real world with her magic one, making both worlds credible. In the two realities Arabella is required to learn, grow, be brave, make good choices and deal with adversity. Her adventures in magic are a delightful vehicle for young readers to grapple with their own struggles. The story is full of tongue-in-cheek humour, too. The fearful foe is a hadeda called Ozymandias (after the character in a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem), and one of Arabella’s insect friends is none other than – the normally vilified – Parktown Prawn!

In the second book, Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu Arabella’s adventures take her to Knysna where she meets some clacking oysters, slow-swimming seahorses and noble elephants. Wende’s use of animals big and small in his tales has the effect of placing his protagonist in the larger web of life.

In this story, as in book one, Arabella lives in two worlds. Her problems at school and with friends grow steadily worse. At the same time she is desperately needed in the magic realm to defeat a terrible monster called Krakobek. Apart from this crocodile-cum-hyena-cum-scorpion beast, most of the characters in book two exhibit both good and bad traits. In other words, they are relatable to readers.

What is special about the Arabella stories is that they are ‘very consciously South African and non-racial’. Wende uses names and characters that reflect a range of South African characters, and give a deep humanity to all.

‘I had a deep desire to reflect the good things in South Africa,’ said Wende when I interviewed him. I think he has done just that in these two Arabella stories. I’m delighted, as will be fans of the well-received books, that Wende is busy on book three. ‘I owe it to myself to make it a trilogy,’ he said.

Hooray! I look forward to Arabella three, Hamilton Wende! The Arabella books are suitable for tweens, retail at R170 each and can be purchased at all good book stores or online at www.clockworkbooks.co.za.