Book Review: Canvas under the Sky – by Robin Binckes

CanvasBoar is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmer, which came to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier in Southern Africa during the 18th century. They were originally Dutch farmers that eventually escaped British rule in South Africa by trekking north into the unknown North, the frontier.

Canvas under the Sky is a historical novel that plays in the 1830s in South Africa. Rauch Beukes is a young Boer of 17. As the story opens, he travels with his father to Cape Town to purchase supplies for the homestead. The trip takes several weeks each way by horseback and wagon. When they come home, they find the farm plundered and burned by the Xhosa natives. Rauch’s mother and sisters are dead. His brothers and their servants and slaves had found refuge with a neighbor. The family starts rebuilding.

Eventually, the Boars decide to leave the English colony and trek north. The migration is eventually known as the Great Trek. Rauch narrates the story of the trek, the hardships the settlers go through, and the many battles they fight against hostile natives of the Xhosa, Zulu and many other tribes that outnumber them fifty to one. The leaders of the trekkers are Potgieter, Retief, Maritz, Trichardt and Cilliers, among others, and reading Canvas under the Sky, some of those leaders come to life for the reader.

Reminiscent of the conquest of the American western frontier around the same period, the treks of the Boars in South Africa are not as well-known or documented, at least not to the average American reader, like me. While I knew there was a violent and bloody period, reaching all the way to modern times and Apartheid, I had never had the opportunity to familiarize myself with South African history and the details of the colonization. This book opened my eyes.

But not sufficiently.

I got a sense of what the hardships of the settlers were, and how difficult it was to survive on the frontier. In America, we had the Indians. In South Africa, they had the Xhosa and Zulus, who didn’t appreciate the Europeans invading their lands and upsetting their customs. The book illustrates many bloody battles, where thousands of natives were mowed down by western guns and cannons, with casualties for the whites only in the dozens, if any. But I never really got the sense of where the wars were going. The whites are constantly portrayed as those with God on their side. They thank the Lord for the battles that they won, with thousands of black corpses surrounding them. No credit is given to the natives, who are portrayed as nothing but bloodthirsty wild animals that wanted to harm innocent God-fearing settlers.

The author loves to show battle after battle. The battles are always the same.  They do not really portray the underlying conflict. A naïve reader will put the book down and hate the blacks, who were really the ones that were violated in that period of history.

The author most also have been given bad advice about how to make a history book interesting. Rather than spending time and effort on painting an accurate and realistic historical background and environment, he decided to make the narrator a horny teenage boy who does most of his thinking with this genitals, and thus Canvas under the Sky is part historical novel, part soft porn for teenage audiences. The two just don’t work together.

In Rauch’s life there are three women: Amelia is the daughter of an English settler, who is fifteen when he and his father, at the beginning of the book, come home from Capetown to find the homestead devastated. Rauch falls in love with her, but inexplicably, she loves his father, who is around 40 years old at the time, and she marries him instead. Amelia’s character never really makes sense, all the way through the story.

Then there is Katrina, the mulatto former slave come prostitute, who likes to service Rauch and eventually bears him a son. She is actually the woman that is most thoroughly developed in this book, whose motivations make sense and who cares about Rauch. But for some reason we don’t understand, he casts her away.

Finally, there is the beautiful Marietjie who loves him – why I can’t figure out – but who is married to an abusive English officer named Roddy. She also gets pregnant by Rauch.

Rauch’s Pa is also an old lecher who cheats on his wife (when she is still alive) and then steals the girl of his son. Pa comes across as a 40-year-old teenager who is interested in nothing but getting laid.

The sex scenes are plentiful, explicit and unfortunately also awkward and repetitive. Rauch always “kisses tenderly.” There is no normal kiss, just a tender kiss. Whenever a woman looks at him “he feels himself getting aroused.” When he orgasms, it’s always “indescribable.”

The sex scenes do the book a disservice. The motivations of Rauch and his women don’t make any sense. They seem to be contrived and appear to exist only to make a historically shallow book spiced up so it would appeal to high school kids.

If I want soft porn, I read Fanny Hill. If I want to read historical novels, I read Jeff Shaara books. It’s a pity, because the author really does seem to have a passion for the history of his country. More history, more detail, perhaps a map or a chart, would have helped the book much more than the side plot of Rauch and his adolescent urges.

Rating - Two Stars

Possible Plagiarism of the Battle at Kruger

Reading Robin Binckes’ novel Canvas under the Sky, starting at page 178, I found a scene that was remarkably like something I had seen before. I searched on Google using the keywords “Buffalo, Lions, Crocodile” and the second entry was this video titled Battle at Kruger, which had been a viral video years ago.


Is this plagiarism?

Plagiarism: the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.

The act of using another person’s ideas – if a YouTube video is an idea – which I would think it is, qualifies.

This YouTube has been viewed 75 million times. Why would Binckes retell a story that 75 million potential readers had already seen in a video, and not give credit?

Here are pages 178 – 180 of Robin Binckes’ novel Canvas under the Sky, and you can judge for yourself:

Early one morning, a week after the funeral, Jan and I set off to hunt lions that had killed three cattle the night before. We tracked the spoor of a pride for some miles until the trail ran cold at a small stream. We climbed off our horses and concealed ourselves behind some bushes. While we studied the terrain for signs of lion, a herd of some forty Cape buffalo emerged from the scrub about fifty yards downstream and across the river from us. Jan started to ready his Sanna for a shot but the buffalo became agitated and began to move farther downstream, tossing their heads and swishing their tails. I guessed they had picked up our scent as the wind was blowing in their direction.

Jan nudged me in the ribs. “Look,” he said, pointing.

Five lions were stalking the buffalo through the long grass on the riverbank. They were thirty yards away when the buffalo started to move away, firstly at a walk, then at a brisk trot. The lions broke cover and the buffalo panicked, running wildly in different directions. A lioness singled out a buffalo calf. Totally focused, she ignored the larger animals as she bounded past. Within a few strides she leaped onto her prey, her claws gouging its sides. The whites of the calf s rolling eyes showed its terror. The rest of the pride joined the attack. The young buffalo crashed to the ground, surrounded, before slipping down the riverbank and splashing into the water. Standing in the shallows, the lions savaged the animal, with throaty roars and grunts until their coats were seeped with blood. “He’s had it,” Jan whispered.

I nodded. We were totally engrossed in the scene until my gaze was drawn by a movement in the water, a few yards away. Two giant crocodiles were silently approaching the battle scene. The jaws of one crocodile emerged from the muddy waters. Mouth agape, it raced the last few yards, reared out of the water and grabbed the kicking, twitching back legs of the young buffalo. With a shake of its scaly head the crocodile started to pull the prey into the water. The calf had become the prize in a mortal tug-of-war.

As we watched in amazement the crocodile, realizing it was losing the struggle, summoned all its energy and power and heaved out of the water so that its jaws clamped the buffalo’s rump. Shaking its tail, it began to pull the calf deeper into the water. The lions, angered by this intrusion into what should have been an uncontested kill, let out a barrage of roars and intensified their mauling of the calf s throat and then, almost as if by command, pulled together. The crocodile held on but was yanked up behind the buffalo until, with a shake of its head and a thrashing of the tail, it let go. The crocodile sank beneath the waters to sulk in the muddy depths below.

“The lions have won,” exclaimed Jan.

“No they haven’t. Look there,” I whispered. “I can’t believe this. It’s not over yet. The buffalo have come back.”

The buffalo had regrouped as a herd and returned. The lions looked up from their anticipated feast, aware of the approaching buffalo moving menacingly at a determined trot in their direction. There was no doubt what their intentions were. The lions clambered nervously to their feet, moving cautiously away from the approaching herd that had formed itself into a wall of muscle. As the speed of the buffalo increased, the nerve of a lioness broke as she slunk away from the others. A huge buffalo bull trotted after her, faster, then faster, and with a sweep of his horns, gored the lioness in the side and tossed her a full five feet into the air. When the lioness hit the ground her legs were like pistons which pounded the ground as she fled. The buffalo trotted back to the herd which had now surrounded the remaining lions.

At that moment there was a flurry of dark brown from among the lions and the buffalo calf—bitten, mauled and almost drowned—staggered away from the lions and disappeared into the protective ranks of the herd. Having dealt with one lioness, the buffalo drew closer to the remaining four, which slunk away along the riverbank. It was all over. The buffalo had won and the buffalo calf had survived … for the time being.

Jan breathed in one mighty rush. “Whew! That is something! I have never seen anything like that before.”

I shook my head, “There’s no point telling any of the others,” I said. “They’ll think we’ve had too many brandies.”