Book review: A poignant memoir

2017-08-06 06:06

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Sandra Laurence

Queen of the Free State by Jennifer Friedman


320 pages

R239 at

This charming and evocative memoir describes the life of Jennifer Anne – so called to pay tribute to “Our queen’s little princess, Anne” – in Hennenman, Free State.

Friedman brings us directly into her world as the book opens with memories of her mother, who wore tweed and brooches as the queen of England did.

But for Jennifer, the colours of the tweed remind her of the veld on her grandpa’s farm, the blue flecks of fountain and the hills’ rusty red.

At once a poignant and amusing tale of childhood memories and family idiosyncrasies, the book also documents with the lightest of touches what it was like to grow up in a Jewish family in the 1960s in rural South Africa.

Across the road lives Nellie, who allows Jennifer in to see the Christmas tree, although Nellie’s granny has forbidden it because she’s not a “true believer and not Afrikaans”, but the children take no notice.

Jennifer eventually starts Sub A fluent in Afrikaans, which is the medium of the school. But she will always be different.

Friedman’s observations are acute and amusing, but they all hint at the casual cruelty and suffering of the time.

The local albino woman disparagingly called “witmeid”; the eight-year-old child in her class who died from a brain tumour; the torpid hymns all Sunday drifting over from the NG Kerk where most of the town is gathered, “swollen with the pleasure of being right, white and Afrikaans”.

Her mother tells her not to be embarrassed about the “Jew church” on the wrong side of town, but that is what her friends call the synagogue, and Jennifer doesn’t want to be a good Jewish child or “a good woman more precious than rubies”.

She wants to be like her friends and join the Voortrekkers, have shiny pictures of pink-cheeked Jesus, know what happens in the children’s service.

On the way home from school, she also witnesses policemen beating prisoners, and screams at them to stop.

“You’re next, you filthy little commie Jew,” they reply. “We’re coming to get you!”

Eventually, Jennifer is sent to boarding school in Cape Town, and the idyll of life with her extended family and Sandy her dog ends.

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