A Blade of Grass

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Overview

Set on the border between South Africa and an unnamed neighboring country in the 1970s, A Blade of Grass is a novel about a bitter struggle over a small farm and its dramatic consequences for two women, one white and one black.

The story centers on Marit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, recently orphaned and newly wed, who comes to live with her husband, Ben, on their newly purchased farm. Shortly after her arrival, violence strikes at the heart of Marit's world, ...

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A Blade of Grass: A Novel

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Overview

Set on the border between South Africa and an unnamed neighboring country in the 1970s, A Blade of Grass is a novel about a bitter struggle over a small farm and its dramatic consequences for two women, one white and one black.

The story centers on Marit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, recently orphaned and newly wed, who comes to live with her husband, Ben, on their newly purchased farm. Shortly after her arrival, violence strikes at the heart of Marit's world, leaving her alone and isolated. Devastated, confused, but determined to run the farm on her own. Marit finds herself in a simmering tug of war between the local Afrikaner community that surrounds the farm and the black workers who live on it, both vying for control over the land in the wake of tragedy.

Marit's only supporter is her black housekeeper, Tembi, who, like Marit, is alone in the world. The women are determined to hold on to the farm, but the quietly approaching civil war brings out conflicting loyalties that turn the fight for the farm into a fight for their lives.

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Editorial Reviews

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A Blade of Grass is a graceful and stunning epic set in 1970s South Africa, on a remote farm owned by a newly married couple. The mistress of the house, Märit, is young, recently orphaned, easily intimidated, and unaccustomed to rural life. With no close neighbors or friends, Märit feels isolated in the house while her husband works in the fields all day. Märit's displacement is soon echoed in the character of Tembi, the daughter of Märit's household maid, who assumes her mother's responsibilities in the farmhouse after she is hit by a car.

An encroaching civil war soon threatens the tranquility of the farm, and before long a plague of violence descends. Abandoned by the other farm workers, the care of the farm is now left to Märit and Tembi, who begin this new struggle for survival as equals, but whose unity is put to a devastating test.

DeSoto paints an unforgettable portrait of South Africa with tensions, both political and sexual, simmering underneath. Recalling J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace in his portrayal of apartheid, DeSoto explodes onto the literary scene with a first novel of tremendous power and literary skill. His description of a terrifying world gone awry holds at its center a deep understanding of the patience of the land, and the enduring hope for renewal. This is an important book. (Fall 2003 Selection)

The New York Times
DeSoto writes lyrically about the African countryside, and he delicately reveals the nuances of interracial sexual attraction.—Tony Eprile
Publishers Weekly
By a South African-born former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, this ambitious, overwritten novel strives vainly for lyricism while tepidly conveying the chaos and terror arising out of the struggle between white Afrikaaners and native blacks in the 1970s. From childhood a victim of a country sitting on a powder keg of racial upheaval, 18-year-old Tembi, the housekeeper for a newly wed white farming couple, struggles to find a sense of security, planting the seeds from an exotic fruit her father has sent her from the distant city where he works in a gold mine as military jets buzz ominously overhead. Her mistress, the recently orphaned Merit Laurens-the uneasy bride of a young Brit lured abroad by dreams of becoming a farmer and the offer of cheap government land-suddenly finds herself a widow, with only Tembi to insulate her from the unwelcoming, still half-wild land and the restive, hostile native workers on the farm. Shunned by the white Afrikaaners because she treats Tembi as an equal, Merit rejects their offer to escape the danger of encroaching war, electing to stay on her land because she has nothing else and nowhere to go. The novel plays out as a downward spiral of hopelessness, with the two women suffering unthinkable hardship in the face of almost certain ruin. DeSoto gives little dimension to the South African landscape or the struggle that ravages it, but more serious is his failure to bring his protagonists to convincing life. Merit's tremulous, repetitive musings and Tembi's stoic resolve alter little over the course of the novel, and their stilted, stylized exchanges ("Why are you sad?" "No, I'm happy, Tembi. I'm happy, because you are such a good person") are leached of meaning and substance. 3-city author tour. (Sept. 19) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In South Africa not long ago, rich, arable land is offered cheaply to anyone willing to take the risk of living on or close to dangerous borders. So it happens that Ben Laurens, an Englishman with a passion for farming, brings new bride Marit to one such border farm with dreams of raising crops and a family on his own land. The dream is short-lived as antiwhite violence erupts and most of the villagers decamp for safer places. Marit, a woman raised in privilege and unaccustomed to manual labor, is determined to remain on the farm with her black maid, Tembi. Their resolve is tested, first by hostile workers and then by suspicious strangers, natural predators, and the elements. Their relationship, which begins as master and slave, evolves through mutual dependence into friendship and, as their difficulties mount, deteriorates again into suspicion and hostility. This fine first novel is tension-filled and swiftly paced. A good choice for most public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Kingston, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A ponderous debut details the Job-like sufferings of two young women (one black, one white) on a farm in apartheid South Africa of the 1970s. The remote farm is in a border area targeted by guerillas. The owner is Ben Laurens, a recent arrival from England, but the focus is on his young bride Märit. A city girl who has just lost both parents, she worries about her ability to handle farm life. Far more self-confident is the 18-year-old Tembi, whose mother Grace is the maid. They live in the kraal with the farmworkers. Tembi is close to the earth; her secret garden contains seeds sent by her father, a gold miner. The land, described with a lulling reverence, is as much of the context here as apartheid. The first tragedy is the death of Grace, killed in a hit-and-run; next Ben is killed by a guerilla land-mine. Märit, needy and fearful, invites Tembi into her house and her bed, clinging to her for comfort. Then, in a barely credible makeover, she goes native (bare feet, a sarong, the works) and tells the farmworkers she is now the boss. Her authority is short-lived. All her cattle are stolen. As the land turns into a war zone, her black workers leave (but not the loyal Tembi), followed by her white neighbors. Locusts devour her vegetables. An itinerant black man, Khoza, fixes their pump, but can he be trusted? Märit, still the same hand-wringing lost soul, can't decide whether to shoot him or sleep with him; her foolishness seriously upsets Tembi. A three-way tussle ends with the arrival of more visitors: first, white soldiers, then black soldiers on horseback, who conscript Khoza and Tembi. Märit, her house looted, her farm ravaged, drowns herself in the river. First-novelist DeSoto doesnot allow the wretched Märit even an epiphany as he piles on with a vengeance. A dreary tale of plunder and loss, uninflected by humor or nuance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780732278342
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Australia
  • Publication date: 2/25/2004
  • Pages: 431
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Lewis DeSoto was born in South Africa and moved to Canada as a teenager. His first novel, A Blade of Grass, was an international bestseller and an International Book of the Month selection. Longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, the novel was also a finalist for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. An artist as well as a writer, DeSoto authored a biography of the painter Emily Carr. He lives with his wife, the artist Gunilla Josephson, in Toronto and Normandy, France. Visit him online at www.lewisdesoto.com.

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First Chapter

A Blade of Grass
A Novel

Chapter One

First she must wash the seeds.

To do this, Tembi places them in an old tin can, salvaged long ago from the refuse heap of the big house -- a tin can that once might have contained jam, or peaches, or sauce, but is now scrubbed clean of its label and any residue of sweet or bitter. A vessel of many uses, worn smooth by many hands.

There are five seeds. Each is no larger than one of her own fingernails -- pale, pink, oval, the outer husks hard and corrugated with fine ridges that gradually appeared as the seeds dried. She has kept them safe for many days, folded into the corner of a handkerchief tucked in the pocket of her dress.

Cyril brought the seeds. Not like this, hard and dry, but still inside a fruit, a fruit strange to this part of the world, with firm yellow flesh and the seeds deep inside. Cyril, who is a friend of her father, from the time before the Relocation. Cyril brought them, a gift from her father, from the city, from the gold mines where her father works, where he digs the hard yellow metal deep underground. A gift from her father, Cyril said, a gift from a faraway city.

Her father cannot come himself, so he sends this fruit instead, in his place, this fruit offering such surprising flavour, such smoothness on her tongue, and the taste that is there and then not there. And the seeds hidden deep inside.

When the fruit is eaten, every bit of the yellow flesh taken from the rind and the juices licked from her lips and fingers, all that is left are these five pale seeds. Tembi folds them into her handkerchief and tucks this gift into her pocket. Already, while eating the fruit, she has resolved to plant the seeds, in some secret place, and nurture them, and bring forth sweetness out of the earth, so that when her father returns from the mines he will have this taste in his mouth to wash away the bitterness of the gold dust. A gift.

First she must wash the seeds. There is an iron tap outside the kraal washhouse, one that the farmer installed not long ago, so that the women would not have to walk to the river with buckets and pails to fetch water or to wash their clothes. Washing clothes in the river was bad for the water, the farmer said, so he built the washhouse and installed the tap outside. Now the water is drawn out of the deep earth by the windmill in the maize field, the metal blades always drifting in a lazy circle under the soft breeze that blows from the west and the faint regular grind of the pump mechanism, always audible amongst the sounds of birds during the day and the chirrup of the crickets at night.

The water is warm on Tembi's fingers when she opens the faucet, warm from its journey through the sun-heated iron pipe laid across the field to the kraal washhouse, and when she stoops to touch her lips to the spout of the tap the water is warm and tastes of iron. She lets the stream run a minute, splashing on her bare feet, until the water becomes cold and tastes of the dark deep earth.

Tembi unfolds her handkerchief and lets the seeds fall into the bottom of the tin can, then half fills it with water. She cups her hand over the opening and shakes the can, rinsing the seeds, then pours out the water and fills the can again, and shakes the seeds, then repeats the whole procedure, rinsing the seeds until the can is cold in her hand and the seeds glisten in the sunlight, cool and moist.

Above Tembi, the African sky is a high wide arch of blue. The air is hot and dry, the season is new, ready for planting. She raises the tin can and touches it to her brow, shivering at the pleasant little stab of the cold metal on her hot skin. Far above her in the blue arch of the sky, a glint of silver light gleams for a moment and the sigh of a jet's engine mingles with the rustling breeze in the branches of the eucalyptus trees.

Someone is going somewhere, to the faraway world. How does this place where she stands look from up there in the faraway sky? She sees a quilt of ochre and brown and green, and the white farmhouse, small as a page in a small book, and the tiny glint of metal sparking in the sun where the light catches the tin can in her hand.

Tembi turns off the faucet. At her feet the earth is muddy, and she wiggles her toes into the cool, wet soil, and her skin is the same dark color as the African soil when it is wet after the rain.

A shadow moves across the land. Across the quilt of ochre and brown and green, across the hills and the valleys and the rivers, across the maize fields and the veldt grasses where the cattle graze, across the farmhouse bordered by eucalyptus trees and the kraal and the washhouse, across this place called Kudufontein. From the corner of her eye, just on the edge of her vision, Tembi sees the rapid flicker of a shadow on the ground, as if a hand has suddenly placed itself between the earth and the sun. More rapidly than her senses can register, the shadow becomes a sudden dark cloud that leaps from the earth to swoop over her. A metallic shriek rips the sky and the black shapes of two military jets boom and flash over the farm just above the roofs. Like predatory hawks they scream away towards the border, and the booming of the engines slams against Tembi's body, buVeting the air with the acrid stench of jet fuel.

Behind the farmhouse the treetops bend and sway in the hot wind and the doves that roost there fling themselves wildly into the air like bits of torn paper. Tembi feels the trembling of the earth in her legs and in the soil at her feet and in the chase of her heart as it races inside the cage of her ribs. Above her the two metallic specks glint in the far blue heavens. At her feet is the fallen tin can and the spilled water and the seeds scattered in the mud.

She bends to gather the seeds, for she will plant them this day. But first she must wash the seeds.

A Blade of Grass
A Novel
. Copyright © by Lewis DeSoto. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Set on Kudufontein, a remote farm on the border between South Africa and an unnamed country in the 1970s, A Blade of Grass is a charged and complex exploration of apartheid and its consequences. The story centers on Märit Laurens, a young woman of British descent, orphaned and recently married to Ben, whom she joins to live on their newly purchased farm. Not long after their arrival, violence strikes at the heart of Märit's world, leaving her alone and isolated. Devastated, alone, but determined to keep the farm running, Märit turns for companionship and guidance to her young black housekeeper, Tembi, who is in a similar predicament but for different reasons.

Soon Märit finds herself in the middle of a simmering battle between the local Afrikaner community that surrounds her farm and the black workers who live on it, with both vying for control over her land in the wake of tragedy. Facing obstacles of biblical proportions, Tembi and Märit forge a close bond, relying on each other, what's left of their land, and their wits to survive.

Strangers and wanderers insinuate themselves into their sheltered world, including Michael, the mute musician who charms their farmyard animals, and Khoza, a mysterious, sinister figure who upsets the tenuous peace and security Tembi and Märit have found in each other. Perhaps the greatest threat to their world is the encroaching civil war and its soldiers who stir up conflicting loyalties that turn Märit and Tembi's fight for the farm into a struggle for their lives.

Questions for Discussion

  1. At the beginning of A Blade of Grass, how does Märit feel about the farm and the land she renames "Kudufontein"? How do her feelings change over the course of the novel?

  2. How would you describe Ben's feelings about his farm and the land? What seems to motivate those feelings? How do they differ from Märit's and why? Did Märit's response to his death strike you as unusual in any way?

  3. How would you characterize the nature of the relationship between Tembi and Märit? What are some of the obstacles to their closeness? How does tragedy impact their individual lives? What threatens to divide them?

  4. What is significant about Märit's decision to wear a sarong, go barefoot, and shear her hair? Why might such behavior be interpreted as a challenge to neighbors like Eloise Pretorius and Connie van Staden? Why does Märit get a cold reception at Patel's Haberdashery in Klipspring?

  5. In A Blade of Grass, the word apartheid is never used to describe the codified racial boundaries that existed in South Africa between blacks and whites. What are some of the physical and social aspects of apartheid that struck you in this book? Can you think of ways in which blacks and whites in this novel reject outright racist attitudes? Or, how do they embrace them?

  6. "Today you pay me ... but tomorrow I will pay you. Both of you!," says bossboy Joshua. How does he make good on his threats against Tembi and Märit? Do you feel that his frustration and anger were justified in any way? How did you feel when his behavior was avenged by Tembi?

  7. How does Khoza's arrival on the farm change the dynamic between Tembi and Märit? What aspects of Khoza's personality make Märit distrust him? Were you surprised when she allowed him to take her rifle? How would you characterize Khoza's loyalties to Märit and Tembi? Does his behavior toward the black soldiers complicate your understanding of his loyalty?

  8. "I wouldn't lower myself to his level," says Märit. Why does she lie to Tembi about what happens between her and Khoza? How does this lie affect their friendship? Does this remark reflect a change or prejudice in Märit's attitudes?

  9. Why do Khoza and Tembi force Märit out of her home? Why does she choose not to fight them, or punish them even when she has a clear opportunity to do so? Were you surprised that Tembi would betray Märit like this? Do you believe that Khoza and Tembi were justified in their actions? Why or why not?

  10. A Blade of Grass opens and closes with the image of seeds that Tembi intends to plant. How does this image undergo a transformation over the course of the novel? How do the original seeds nourish Tembi and Märit at various points in the book? What do the seeds at the end of the book represent?

About the Author

Lewis DeSoto was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was awarded the Books in Canada/Writers' Union Short Prose Award, and his writing has been published in numerous journals. A past editor of Literary Review of Canada, DeSoto lives with his wife in Normandy and Toronto.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2007

    A friendship story of South Africa

    'I think the book's synopsis leads the reader to believe there might be a little more action in the story than there really is. However don't let that deter you. The story is mainly of the relationship of two women from different cultures. They both have dealt with the loss of a loved one and learn to work with each other to accomplish a shared goal. Not knowing much about South Africa (especially in the 1970s) I really appreciated the cultural aspects and sociological aspects of this novel. The writing flows easily. I have loaned it to five women and they have all made the statement, 'I just couldn't put it down.' We all agreed that we didn't like the way it ended but also agreed that it really couldn't have ended another way. (Again, don't let this deter you from reading it). I should say that I did loan it to a male friend and he did not care for it or finish

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2005

    South African journey

    This is a gripping story of strong women who fight to survive in the midst of apartheid. Great characters and themes. DeSoto chose an excellent title with significance to their uphill struggle.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2004

    Great Book!

    What a wonderful story! I couldn't put it down. I won't be surprised if this wins some awards. We need more books like this one - a great story and wonderful writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2003

    yeah!

    Piles of vengenace, no bloodened and dross!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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