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