Frank Adams must be the most silent protagonist in fiction. Perhaps his humble voice is what allows the reader to experience the cacophony of the Boer War in The Great Karoo, by Fred Stenson. What seems like a radical departure from Stenson’s usual and successful scenes in western Canada quickly becomes an extension of southern Alberta, as cowboys go off to war in South Africa at the behest of an ungrateful Great Britain.
Frank is a follower, a man uncomfortable with any sort of attention. He loves and knows horses, particularly Dunny. Along with many other cowboys, he and Dunny are shipped first to Halifax and then to South Africa in the roughest of conditions. Already Frank has started to develop a sort of confused resentment at the waste and incompetence of war.
In The Great Karoo, the Boer war is exposed as a shambles. Many characters, both fictional and historic, direct the troops according to their past experiences or to satisfy their own egos. The Boers have their own egotistical leaders, who often outwit the British, yet also disregard human life in pursuit of their goals. Scattered across the desert, plains and hills are Boer farms and towns, eerily reminiscent of Alberta. Naturally, the Boer farmers are uniformly angry and disdainful of the armed interlopers who fight for their subjection.
Despite the death, illnesses, cold, heat, lice, hunger and every other calamity of war, Frank persists even longer than his enlistment requires. He makes friends with Ovide, another man who does what he is told, until he falls fatally for a bad “joke”. And after much persistence, he becomes the true friend of Jeff Davis, a man of ambition and leadership. Frank’s persistence is his most endearing quality. Many times he withdraws, but then he returns to his deep need to be friends with a few select people and horses.
The Great Karoo is a finely crafted novel that teaches us history while defining the value of the quiet voice.