Childhood memoir of the midlands

2007-02-01 00:00

Gertrud Strauss was born and brought up in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal in the late thirties and forties of the last century. Her book is a memoir of sorts of her childhood during that time.

Brought up in a strongly German Lutheran tradition, Strauss writes her story through the perceptive eyes of her young self. Her view of her parents, the brusque Farmer Stein and his easily distracted wife, are sharply observant. The little girl sees her parents as two somewhat strange creatures, bent on their own tasks for each day, while she, her sister and two brothers slot in around their busy lives.

Strauss's writing is beautiful and eloquent, and subtly captures the troubling undercurrents of that seemingly idyllic time. As a little girl trying to fall asleep at night, she is subject to dreams about dark strangers coming to attack them at night. She is only consoled by her father's snores heard from the nearby bed. This image strikes a realistic chord. The adults' fears of a potential uprising by their oppressed workers impinge on the consciousness of any sensitive child of that time.

Strauss touches lightly too on the status quo of women at that time. The little girls know and resent that the boys in their family will always be free to follow their own instincts while they are bound by the domestic duties expected of them.

Amusing portraits are painted of all the extended family members, especially of the bed-ridden Tante Emilie who traps the girls in her sick room, regaling them with tales of biblical doom and gloom which cloud their daily thoughts with guilt and dread.

Strauss's use of language is delightful and evocative. Her eccentric characters come to life in much the same way as Dickens's characters do. For anyone who can remember growing up in an apparently simpler time, or for those who have or want to know more about a German background in the midlands, this is a great read.

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