Review Blog

Jul 19 2019

When the ground is hard by Malla Nunn

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Allen and Unwin, 2019. ISBN: 9781760524814.
(Age: 13+) Highly recommended. Themes: Racism, Colonialism, Swaziland, South Africa, Friendship, Jane Eyre, Bullying, Crime. Adele, living in a coloured community in colonial Swaziland is lucky. Her white father supports his family, visiting now and again, leaving money but more importantly paying her school fees at a Christian boarding school eighty eight miles away. With her paler skin and some money in her pocket she fits in with the pretties, the top group within the school, those for whom others run errands, the girls who are excused some misbehaviour because they are fee paying in a school where many are slow with theirs. Arriving after a long hot bus trip, Adele realises that a new girl, Sandi has taken her spot and she is relegated to sharing a room with a poor Swazi girl, an outcast, Lottie, who doesn't seem to care about the rules they are forced to obey.
After a confrontation with the pretties, Adele can see Lottie's future, a poor mixed race girl, clever and pretty but prey to the white men, just like Adele's mother, a woman whose youth and abilities are left in a village on the outskirts of a town, hungry for the scant recognition given by the man who keeps her there.
School is a hive of jealousies and racism, but wanting to fit back in with the pretties, Adele grudgingly comes to see Lottie in a different light, beginning to recognise an independence of spirit that she wants for herself.
Things happen which open Adele's eyes to the small mindedness of the group she longs to be with: they steal Lotte's only spare pair of undies, they lie about the fire and spread rumours about her and Lottie, they laugh and sneer as they pass by.
Lottie and Adele bond further over a shared reading of Jane Eyre, the story of a young girl sent to an appalling boarding school paralleling their own situation, and giving them some hope that they too will be like Jane, exploring ways of being independent.
This is a marvellous insight into colonial racism, the small mindedness of communities where class is all, the use made of the local women, leading to their inevitable abandonment.
It is rare to read a book set in southern Africa, and this is outstanding, revealing the techniques used by the British to keep control of this small country, eventually relinquishing power in 1968. The school is a microcosm of the divided society, the senior girls using their pets to run messages, using food as a trading tool, the staff supporting the ones with money and power, using petty means to keep control.
When Adele and Lottie realise that one of the boys is missing, they investigate, but not in the way the school directs, they go off on their own. It is on this journey that Adele finds out more about her background, and is caught up by the ugly racism of the school's Afrikaner neighbour, Bosman.
Nunn has skilfully blended a good tale based upon her own family's story with enough of Southern Africa's history to give a solid background to the story. Terms used are those prevalent in southern Africa in the 1950's when Apartheid was installed, the colour of your skin deciding your position in society.
Readers will be well used to words such as Swazi and Zulu, or native and coloured to describe the students as well as Afrikaner when Bosman comes on the scene, bringing his odious views with him.
In the last few pages we learn of the African proverb, 'When the ground is hard, the women dance' bringing many of the themes together, making it a richly layered novel for middle secondary students.This book lends it self to discussions about racism and Apartheid, the role of women in society, the drift from rural to urban societies, finding yourself and of course, Jane Eyre. Scroll down for teacher's notes from the publisher.
Fran Knight

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