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Guide to The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson

The Great Karoo begins in 1899, as the British are trying to wrest control of the riches of South Africa from the Boers, the Dutch farmers who claimed the land. The Boers have turned out to be more resilient than expected, so the British have sent a call to arms to their colonies — and an a great number of men from the Canadian prairies answer the call and join the Canadian Mounted Rifles: a unit in which they can use their own beloved horses. They assume their horses will be able to handle the desert terrain of the Great Karoo as readily as the plains of their homeland. Frank Adams, a cowboy from Pincher Creek, joins the Rifles, along with other young men from the ranches and towns nearby — a mix of cowboys and mounted policeman, who, for whatever reason, feel a desire to fight for the Empire in this far-off war.

Against a landscape of extremes, Frank forms intense bonds with Ovide Smith, a French cowboy who proves to be a reluctant soldier, and Jefferson Davis, the nephew of a prominent Blood Indian chief, who is determined to prove himself in a “white man’s war.” As the young Canadians engage in battle with an entrenched and wily enemy, they are forced to realize the bounds of their own loyalty and courage, and confront the arrogance and indifference of those who have led them into conflict. For Frank, disillusionment comes quickly, and his allegiance to those from the Distict of Alberta, soon displaces any sense of patriotism to Canada or Britain, or belief that he’s fighting for a just cause.

The events of the novel follow the trajectory of the war. The British strategy of burning Boer farms, destroying herds, and moving Boer families into camps weakens the Boer rebels, but they refuse to give up. The thousands of Boer women and children who die in the camp make the war ever more unpopular among liberals in Britain. (In fact, this conflict marked the first use of the term “concentration camp” in war.) Seeing the ramifications of such short-sighted military decisions, and how they affect what happens to Frank and the other Canadians, is crucial to depicting the reality of the Boer War. By focusing on the experiences of a small group of men from southern Alberta, Fred Stenson brings the reality of what it would have been like to be a soldier in this brutal war to vivid life.

Questions

1. Did Frank Adams ever figure out why he volunteered to go to war, and then stayed on so long? Why do you think he did so, ultimately?

2. In a war, honour — for oneself and for one’s country is often the ultimate goal. What does honour mean in this novel? Who would you consider to be the most honourable character, and why?

3. For the most part, Ovide Smith allows the war to happen around him, showing disinterest except when it comes to caring for the horses. He spends much of his time fighting illness. What is it about Ovide that causes Frank to feel such a bond with him? How does it compare with Frank’s attachment to Jeff Davis?

4. Do you feel like you understand Alice Kettle’s motivation for disguising herself as a man and coming to Africa, or is she too much of a mystery? Why does she abandon Lionel Brooke, yet return to the war?

5. The British generals and other military leaders are shown in a particularly harsh light in this novel: disorganized and misguided at best, brutal and callous at worst. How do Frank and the others shift their notions of loyalty as a result?

6. Jeff Davis is half Native, yet volunteers to participate in what is essentially a British war and “a white man’s war.” Jimmy Whitford, a Crow Métis, and Young Sam, of the Nez Perce First Nation, enter the South African war as employees of an English-Canadian rancher. Discuss the role of the native characters in this novel. In what ways does Stenson compare the plight of Canada’s First Nations and Métis peoples to the hardships faced by black Africans?

7. What are the major factors that shaped Jeff Davis’s character during the war? Do you agree with Frank’s opinion that Jeff’s extreme bravery and heroism grow out of a death wish?

8. What is the most heartbreaking story or event in this novel?

9. Discuss the role of historical fiction in both preserving the past as it is and shedding new light on it. What is a novelist’s responsibility to historical accuracy? What do you think of Stenson’s portrayal of the war, and the soldiers’ individual experiences?

10. Why does the novel open with two prologues? How do they set up this novel?

11. Many of the characters in The Great Karoo are based on ordinary people — not only major figures. For instance, Robert Kerr, Fred Morden, and Ovide Smith are men from Pincher Creek in the District of Alberta, who did in fact die in the war; and Jeff Davis was a scout in the Mounted Rifles and the Canadian Scouts. What do you think Fred Stenson is looking to achieve with this novel (and others), in terms of western Canadian history?

12. Crossing the Great Karoo, Frank decides it is like “a moose to a horse” — at once familiar and yet terribly strange. Compare the experiences of the main characters in the African desert to what life was like in Canada’s West at the time. Can you draw parallels between the Boers in Africa and the ranchers and homesteaders of Alberta?

13. Discuss the overall structure of this novel. For instance, why does Stenson bring us back to General Butler so often, and his assessment of the war from England? Why do three parts in the book deal with Tommy Killam back in Pincher Creek?

14. What is the significance of General Butler’s correspondence with Red Crow in terms of Butler’s outlook on his own life and the war? Discuss the importance of correspondence throughout the novel: Jeff’s letter from Red Crow, the letters carried by Lionel Brooke and Jim Whitfield, the dispatches carried by the scouts, the impact of letters from home, etc.

15. The final section of the book, part twelve, begins well after the war has ended and is separated into three parts: 1910, 1925, and 1942. What effect did this ending have on you, considering the extensive and in-depth account of the war that makes up the rest of the novel?

16. Though we spend the majority of the novel in Frank’s perspective, it’s only at the end that he speaks to us directly as readers when he talks about his attempts to write a war memoir forty years later. Why does Stenson make this shift?

© 2010 Random House of Canada Limited

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Posted by Pearl on Jul 27 2010. Filed under Reading Guides. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
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