January 07, 2010


A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa. By Dominique Lapierre. Da Capo. $26.

A Faraway Island. By Annika Thor. Translated by Linda Schenck. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Here are two books, one intended as factual and the other written as fact-based fiction – one aimed at adults, the other at preteens and young teenagers – and both about outsiders and their eventual triumph over tremendous adversity. In a sense, the adversity is the same in both books: Nazism in A Faraway Island and repression that the author links directly to Nazism in A Rainbow in the Night. But the books are set a continent apart, Dominique Lapierre’s in Africa and Annika Thor’s in Europe. And they make their points in very different ways: Lapierre’s by hammering, Thor’s by the quiet accumulation of small details.

     Lapierre, founder of a humanitarian organization that supports medical care, education and development in India, Africa and South America, intends his book as an affirmation of the human spirit among the apartheid-oppressed black majority in South Africa. Although he does discuss the nation’s modern origins, which date to farmers who were settled there in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company to produce food for sailors, he reserves his greatest attention and most vehement denunciations for South Africa after 1948, when the Purified National Party came to power and formalized apartheid as law. There is little new in the horrors that Lapierre documents, although his access to primary sources is impressive. And there is little new in the outrage he expresses and the uplifting messages he regularly delivers: “The clampdown was savage. But no threat seemed capable of stifling the resistance of the young people in Soweto. On the pediments of their schools they placed a new slogan: ‘Enter here to learn, leave to serve.’” Lapierre makes it a point to talk about “police practiced in the Nazi methods so admired by the founders of apartheid.” He talks of “Hendrik Verwoerd and his antlike team of associates” promulgating “no fewer than 1,750 different pieces of legislation designed to give whites sole rule in South Africa forever.” He writes of divorcing prisoners of a sense of time as “part of a program of disintegration scientifically designed by the oppressors in Pretoria.” In short, the whites are evil, venal, corrupt, vicious; the blacks are noble, determined, upstanding and unflappable in the cause of right and justice. And if that makes A Rainbow in the Night sound like a propaganda piece, so be it: this is a classic example of the (eventual) victors and their supporters getting to write the history books. It is very difficult to criticize Lapierre’s endeavor, given his undoubted charitable credentials and the fact that apartheid was a vicious and brutal system that was largely run (or at least enforced) by vicious thugs. But Lapierre lays everything on so thickly – without really contributing very much that is new, aside from some quotations from individuals – that his book comes across as little more than a polemic. Thus, he writes of a white speech therapist who sought to help black children, “Much as Mother Teresa had answered the need for love and justice by bringing dignity to the poor lepers of the slums of Calcutta, Helen Lieberman could perhaps salvage a little of the honor lost by white South Africans.” A Rainbow in the Night has all the ingredients for the best-seller list – which means more royalties for Lapierre’s charities – but even though it tells a legitimately horrifying tale, it is often painful to read for all the wrong reasons.

     There is a great deal more warmth in A Faraway Island, whose Swedish author wrote a popular quartet of novels about the Steiner sisters that was a big success in a TV adaptation. Her new novel is the tale of two Jewish sisters from Vienna who, in 1939, are sent to Sweden to escape the Nazis, awaiting their parents’ own escape so the family of four can go to the United States. Nellie, who is eight years old, adapts quickly to her host family on an island off the Swedish coast; she even starts to favor Swedish over her native German. But 12-year-old Stephie has a harder time of things: she lives with a different family, including a cold and unfeeling foster mother, and the island’s isolation makes Stephie feel she is abandoned at the edge of the world. What was supposed to be a six-month separation drags on as the war intensifies, and Stephie has nowhere to turn as she endures the traumas of growing up that seem to occur in every generation, in peace as well as war. Taunted by some villagers, under attack by the most popular girl in school, baptized into the Pentecostal Church (along with Nellie) after she finds herself moved to tears by some beautiful church music, Stephie struggles to figure out who she is and what her future can possibly hold in so isolated a place. The “who am I”? theme is nothing new; neither is the longing for the past, as when Stephie “remembers all the things they had to leave behind when the Nazis took their apartment and her father’s medical practice away from them.” Small events loom large in the displaced girls’ lives – a misunderstanding over a coral necklace, an adventure on the ice – and then the war comes closer, as a fishing boat is blown up by a mine; and Stephie finds herself confronting anti-Jewish feelings even on the island that seemed so far from the rest of the world. There is no happy ending here, except in the sense of acceptance and maturity – and a lingering sense of childhoods forever lost. A Faraway Island is not, perhaps, very different from other wartime fiction, except for its rather unusual setting; but it tells its story with sensitivity to the ways in which ordinary people are inevitably the victims of extraordinary historical events.

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