The Great Karoo
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.
The Great Karoo is a deeply satisfying novel, marked by the complexities of its plot, the subtleties of its relationships, and the scale of its terrain. Exhilarating and gruesome by turns, it explores with passion and insight the lasting warmth of friendship and the legacy of devastation occasioned by war.
From the Hardcover edition.
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March 16, 1897
The Concorde stagecoach had been a tarry, shining black when they left the train station in Calgary. Now every surface was dull, and little drifts of yellow sat on the ledges between roof, wall, and wagon. Inside, the schoolteacher pulled back...
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...
— David Adams Richards, author of The Lost Highway
“Fred Stenson has once again brought the past to shimmering life, this time evoking the hallucinatory experience of war in a foreign land. While the novel centres on Frank Adams — a wide-eyed cowboy who joins the Canadian Mounted Rifles — it encompasses much more than a tale of a single soldier. In language both vivid and precise, Stenson paints a vast and damning portrait of war. Dark matter indeed, but a species of transcendent light shows through in the tender feelings men harbour for their horses, in the fierce, unspoken friendships those men forge, and in the life-affirming rush of romantic love. You’ll be tempted to read it in one sitting. Go ahead — the story will be with you long after you close the book.”
— Alissa York, author of Effigy
“With The Great Karoo, Stenson has produced another outstanding historical novel, a masterly work at once original, subversive and significant.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Fred Stenson is a gifted writer of historical fiction, and The Great Karoo is an excellent addition to his oeuvre.”
— Edmonton Journal
“A page-turner…. Through gorgeous prose, Stenson puts readers right into the saddle.”
— Calgary Herald
From the Hardcover edition.