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.

Snowy Transformations

I arrived in a freezing Germany on 9 December 2017. My goal: to visit the Christmas market at Marienplatz, Germany. Bundled up in five layers of my paltry southern hemisphere winter wear, my eyes watering in the cold, I braved the outdoor experience alongside my husband.

A gluhwein stand

The atmosphere was marvellous. Stands of hot chocolate and gluhwein steamed invitingly in the biting air, while visitors and tourists waddled past in their padded coats. Just taking off my gloves to examine little goodies at the stands froze my bony fingers. Shopkeepers helpfully spoke English when I looked blank at the German tongue, and people seemed generally cheerful despite the minus one degree Celcius temperature. It took three trips to the market before I had decided on what to buy. South African Rands don’t make much of a dent in Euros. And, to my practical mind, many of the ornaments and trinkets, nice as they were, wouldn’t have been very useful.

I settled on buying traditional food. The stand that got my Euros was the one

A strange kissing companion

that offered tasting samples and I enthusiastically bought packs of stollen (a fruit bread) and lebkuchen (a ginger-type biscuit) for friends and family back home after nibbling the delicious little blocks.

We had just got back to our hotel room when it began to snow in earnest. I was delighted. In two hours every horizontal surface I could see was covered in soft whiteness. But of course, with icy weather comes travel problems. My departing aeroplane that night had to undergo special de-icing procedures before it could safely take off. I have to say that this was the best part of my trip. Because I have a cockpit pass I was permitted to sit in the cockpit for taxi and takeoff and what a view I got. Before taking off the Airbus A340 was surrounded by three giant de-icing vehicles. Like weird-looking Transformers (I think the creators of the film based their models on these machines), the trio scooted back and forth around the wings and tail spraying 60 degree Celcius liquid across its surface. Using a checklist designed for such conditions the pilots did all the requisite checks and procedures before lifting off the icy runway. Beneath us the whitened landscape twinkled in gentle yellow lights until it disappeared beneath a layer of cloud.

Winter lights

What a treat. Sitting in the cockpit was much more exciting than any movie I could have watched on the aeroplane’s entertainment system.

My funny husband

Winter in New York: Five Travel Tips

Anu Garg, who writes the online A.Word.A.Day,  explains that the word “travel” is ultimately the same word as “travail”. “Imagine the era,” says Garg, “when travel time was measured in months; there were no in-boat movies during the trip, and no Holiday Inns waiting at the destination. That’s if you reach the destination at all.” Travel could be torture, appropriate since the word travel/travail derives from the Latin “trepaliare” which means: “to torture”! (To subscribe to Word.A.Day go to http://wordsmith.org/awad/subscribe.html.)

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An unusually lone umbrella on the wet streets of New York. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Fortunately I travelled to New York recently by aeroplane – not by boat – and did enjoy in-flight movies (Our Brand is Crisis on the way there and The Martian on the way back). I did reach my destination and hotel and while there got to enjoy two excellent Broadway plays: Noises Off and School of Rock the Musical. Perhaps the only “travails” I endured were the cold, rainy and windy conditions, or rather the umbrellas used to ward off those conditions. There were so many brollies bouncing along the wet and windy streets that week, many of which stubbornly refused to stay the right way up in the gusty setting. I worked out that I had to use my borrowed brolly for self-protection. Not against the weather; against the other jostling umbrellas! And the only way it effectively kept the rain off my face was to jam it right down onto my head. Not much sightseeing on this trip; the most I saw was a pair of heels sloshing along on the pavement ahead of me.

Which is why theatre shows were such a good escape. Tip number one: go to the theatre in New York when the weather is bad.

We happened to see Noises Off on a Tuesday evening, the night on which pre-show talks are held at many theatres. We learnt about the playwright Michael Frayn and how his difficult upbringing lent itself to his writing this British farce. We heard about the serious aspects to farce, and how challenging the actors found this particular play. Tip number two: go to the theatre in New York on a Tuesday so you can attend the pre-show talk.

The serious elements notwithstanding Noises Off was very funny. And very clever. Briefly, Noises Offthe story revolves around a group of actors practising for a play. In the first act the director interrupts proceedings during rehearsal. In the second we see the actors behind stage enduring increasingly hostile relationships with one another. The third act features the actors front of stage again but in sadly deteriorated conditions that have resulted in complete chaos. It was brilliant. Tip number three: see Noises Off on Broadway!

The next day we set off early for Broadway and joined a small queue outside the Winter Garden theatre. Along with other shivering people we cleverly bought tickets directly from the box office on the day; we did not pre-book tickets online. This saved a huge amount of money. For instance, orchestra seating tickets for this show can cost as much as $197 each, whereas tickets for the same seats purchased directly from the box office cost $145 each. Tip number four: purchase Broadway theatre tickets directly from the box office.

School of RockSchool of Rock the Musical was a gloriously fun, energetic production featuring enormously talented, vibrant young children and music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Pre-teen youngsters played bass guitars and drums and sang with the maturity of adults. We had a ball. Tip number five: see School of Rock the Musical on Broadway!

As already mentioned my outgoing in-flight movie of choice was the serious, anxiety riddled, political story Our Brand is Crisis starring Sandra Bullock. But my return-flight choice, The Martian, was a pretty lighthearted take on the travails of an astronaut who travelled to Mars and got left behind on that dusty planet. Watching Matt Damon growing potatoes in an inhospitable climate was an enjoyable end to my New York “travails”.