THE RUNAWAY HORSES – JOYCE KOTZÈ

Given my interest in the plight of the horses used during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), it is not surprising that I was drawn to the title of Joyce Kotzè’s debut novel, The Runaway Horses. It is billed as ‘a saga of love and betrayal during the time of the Anglo-Boer War’, but do not expect a soppy romance or even a tale of swashbuckling soldiers. This is the story of ordinary people caught up in an event much larger than they could imagine.

There is no doubt that the Anglo-Boer War has had a long-lasting impact on South Africa. The country abounds with battle sites, war graves, blockhouses – and stories. We know about Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Elandslaagte, the Treaty of Vereeniging … we are painfully aware of the concentration camps, the burning of farms and the pitting of the Boers against the Brits which tested human relationships to the full; splitting families and friendships; causing hunger and distress; and in the end even causing rifts among those Boers who had fought so hard and long for the freedom of their country. The country is also swathed in cosmos flowers, blackjacks and Khakibos as reminders of this period of bloody conflict!

As the war dragged on and took its toll among the Boers, there were the hensoppers – people who had lost so much that they couldn’t see much point in fighting anymore and who wanted to go back to their burnt-out farms and start again. There were the verraaiers – people who, for a variety of reasons, gave up the fight and joined their former enemies. Who knows, perhaps they too simply wanted the fighting to stop so that they could rebuild their lives. There were also the bittereindes – people who had fought so long and so hard, who had lost their farms, their families, and their compatriots yet felt the very act of simply giving up would have made all those sacrifices for nothing. Then there were the British soldiers: how did they feel about sowing such widespread destruction and opposing an untrained and under-armed foe? Did they even understand what they were fighting for?

In the saga of The Runaway Horses Joyce Kotzè provides a broad sweep of soldiers on both sides of the divide from before the war began right through until its end. To create a reality her readers can identify with, she focuses on a fictitious family which is a truly South African mix of Boer and Brit. An English woman marries a Boer and becomes a valued member of the Wintersrust community, while her sister marries into minor British gentry – their children get to know each other well, little guessing that the time would come when they would find themselves on opposite sides of a war that would tear through large parts of South Africa. Kotzè’s characters become so believable and easy to identify with that the tragedy of this conflict boldly comes to the fore as the saga unfolds to portray this difficult period with insight and empathy – readers are caught up in the way in which the strong bonds between the cousins are tested to the limit during the war.

Mixing the action with historic figures such as Jan Smuts, Paul Kruger, Christiaan de Wet, General Kitchener, Lord Roberts and others help to create an authentic background to the development of the war. The author provides vivid impressions of the countryside where battles were fought as well as well-chosen details of clothing, mannerisms, and cameos that breathe life into the soldiers on both sides as well as the women left on the sidelines. By doing so, she brings into sharp focus the conflicting emotions felt by individuals on each side. James Henderson, for example, finds himself at the mercy of both his loyalty to Britain and his compassion for his Boer family.

So real are her descriptions and the careful development of her characters that the author successfully reflects the reality of the history of many South African families that are intertwined with the Anglo-Boer War both at the time and in the aftermath.  She does this by successfully portraying what life was like for the Boers on commando as well as the harsh conditions experienced in the concentration camps. It is story that remains with the reader long after the book has been closed for the last time as we reflect on the complex history of South Africa.

18 thoughts on “THE RUNAWAY HORSES – JOYCE KOTZÈ

    • Thank you very much, Derrick. Reading it, I knew there could not be a ‘happy ever after’ ending; instead it was realistic and mirrored what it must have been like for many families at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think you do need to know the background history to enjoy the story, Joni. The action is clear and the focus is on the individual characters, whom the reader gets to know well.

      Liked by 1 person

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