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This is a beautiful book, which I'm afraid will get lost in the exorcism of European presence in South Africa. As terrible as Apartheid is and was, a few individual stories should not get lost in the shuffle: among them are The Story of an African Farm, The Flame Trees of Thika, and The Land of Green Ginger. Joanna is a young woman of English heritage, born in Africa, against whom circumstances conspire to deliver back to England. But Africa, and specifically the land of green ginger is forever with her, and she never quite fits into slow-paced English society. She has an adventuresome spirit that her purely English provincial neighbors perceive as not quite ladylike. In the beginning, when Joanna is young, she is unaware of how she comes across, and the beauty of Holtby's writing is her ability to communicate the charm and spirit of Joanna to the reader so that the reader finds her appealing, and at the same time, with the same actions, show her time after time committing minor faux pas that make the neighbors wary of her. Eventually, Joanna realizes just how much she doesn't fit in, and she longs more and more for Africa. She has married a man who shared her longing for something outside of provincial England, but was struck with tuberculosis. She has had two children, and because of her husband's illness, bares almost sole responsibilty for them. By this time we have come to love Joanna, and are rapt, hoping with her to find some way out of the English fog into the African sun, and a happier life for her children. Each step toward or back from Africa is an emotional jolt for the reader, and the end is a long sigh; as we close the book-- or at least as I did, a whispered "Amen."
Had Winifred Holtby not died so young (she was only 37) her name would be one of the best-known among English writers. Her plots, like her sentences, are beautifully constructed, and her creation of the South Riding as wonderfully sustained and well-imagined as Thomas Hardy's Wessex. She has the ability to get into the minds of her characters unpretentiously and ostentatiously, and her feminism, never outspoken, is a constant force in her writing. While "South Riding" is perhaps the greatest of her novels, everything she writes, including her short stories, is a delight.
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Born in Africa to English parents, Joanna grows up back in England. During WWI, she meets Teddy, a young man with tuberculosis (although she doesn't know it at the time). They settle down on a farm in Yorkshire with their two daughters. A group of Eastern European workers move into town, including a young interpreter from Hungary who Joanna befriends. Their friendship is the start of her troubles with Teddy, and eventually leads to tragedy.
This is a very powerful, strongly emotional novel (without going overboard). Despite the fact that Teddy is an invalid, it's nearly impossible for the reader to like or sympathize with him; he constantly feels sorry for himself. Joanna is high-spirited, and this is also what causes a rift between the two of them. Joanna doesn't fit in with her English neighbors, so it's only natural that she develops a friendship with Paul, another outsider. I love how Winifred Holtby is able to communicate all of this without explicitly saying it out loud. What I like about Holtby's novels is that they're free of histrionics. But the emotion is there, right under the surface. The ending of this book is supposed to be happy and uplifting, but it left me feeling a bit sad, too.
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