Although not mentioned in the book, the time period according to the author's notes, is the end of the 19th Century. A young English woman, Frances, is given no option but to marry a man she hardly knows, after the death of her father. Dr. Matthews has begun a practice in South Africa and takes on a quest to tackle the growing smallpox epidemic which is unpopular with the diamond mine owners because fear of the disease might unravel their carefully constructed mines. They chose instead to dismiss any cases as misdiagnosed. To add to her confusion, Frances begins a romance with an unscrupulous man while on the ship crossing to the Cape. She feels torn between her husband and lover. One is fighting for the health of the community, the other to make a fortune at any cost.
Although society women were encouraged to do little else but embroider and play the piano in preparation for marriage, I wished Frances had a little more gumption rather than just drifting from one man to the other. I would have liked to have seen a character change before the last pages of the book. The author's descriptions and settings gave me a good idea of life in South Africa during this period. It was a harsh and dusty existence and like many of the colonies, natives were the ones to suffer the most. Kimberley still remains the largest hand dug diamond mine in the world. You can view pictures on Jennifer McVeigh's web site here. It is obvious that Ms. McVeigh did a great deal of research and the book enlightened me on the history of the area as the British colony evolved.
I assume the story takes place after the Boer War when Voortrekkers, those of Dutch decent, moved out of the British controlled Cape Colony. Boer is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmer.
During the 19th century there was a surplus of women in England and they were encouraged to immigrate to the colonies. The Emigration Association was formed helping educated women to travel in groups to countries where they might find work and it was with this group that Frances traveled to South Africa. Many women found themselves working by sorting diamonds for mine owners. While Joseph Baier was a fictional character, he was formed from mine owners of the time. Jennifer McVeigh, who based her story on a doctor's diary found in a library, states that like Baier, Cecil Rhodes covered up the smallpox epidemic in order to protect his mine investments. Despite his unscrupulous actions, after he founded De Beer's diamond mines in Kimberley, he went on to become one of the wealthiest men in Africa and Prime Minister of the Cape. Much as the Reitz family struggled with farming on the Karoo, where sheep still graze on the immense space, droughts and plagues of locust, hit the farmers, many of whom had little farming experience and were escaping the growing unemployment in England. Rietfontein is an actual location in South Africa.
Some words used throughout the book:
Boer - Farmer
Kaffir - A derogatory term for black Africans and no longer used
Askari - A native soldier fighting for the colonial army
Discussion questions here.