The Children's Day

The Children's Day

by Michiel Heyns, Peter Pocklington, J'lyn Nye, Terru McConnell

The Children's Day is the shocking, funny, and tender chronicle of a boy's coming of age in the Free State village of Verkeerdespruit during the apartheid years of the sixties.
The tender chronicle of a boy's coming of age in South Africa during the apartheid years of the sixties, The Children's Day captures the essence of growing up in a world fraught with the

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The Children's Day is the shocking, funny, and tender chronicle of a boy's coming of age in the Free State village of Verkeerdespruit during the apartheid years of the sixties.
The tender chronicle of a boy's coming of age in South Africa during the apartheid years of the sixties, The Children's Day captures the essence of growing up in a world fraught with the strange and sometimes violent contradictions of class, race, gender, and language. The widening world of adolescence, in all its allure and confusion, is explored through the eyes of Simon, who struggles to make sense of the adults around him—torn between scorn for his surroundings and a desire to belong. This debut novel is peopled with poignant, vulnerable, and sometimes eccentric characters, and it is through their lives that Simon comes to understand the complexities of love.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Children’s Day is a deceptively delicate book carefully constructed, both subtly funny and melancholy. It teases apart the layers of memory and winds its young protagonist, deeper and deeper into his short but intense past and the aching dilemmas of his present. But under the novel’s surface, Heyns sustains a tangible, steely fury – a real sense of absolute violence, abuse, loss and deep wrong. In Simon’s half-spoken relationship with the outcast Fanie we are offered a final sense of dangerous tenderness, potential self-knowledge and painful change. This is an important, lovely and thoughtful book."
—A.L.Kennedy, Bookforum

"Successfully unveils the moral hypocrisy of the era..." —Publishers Weekly, 6/29/09

"...fascinating...The result of his insistent moralism is a complex, destructive, angst-inspiring denouement that neatly captures, metaphorically, the corruptions, confusion and hypocrisy of the surrounding society. Mr. Heyns's novel deserves a wide readership."—Martin Rubin, The Wall Street Journal

" language...splendid characters...Heyns' story goes beyond Simon's coming-of-age and broaches something much bigger: society's own struggles with coming-of-age." —Amy Wallen, The Los Angeles Times

“In a political and social climate drawn in hard lines, confusion feels oddly refreshing. It’s what makes The Children's Day a deeper read than more polemical takes on apartheid. Heyns is no less condemning of the inherent violence and hypocrisy of the arrangement, but Simon’s adolescent consciousness lends a more human perspective.”—Time Out Chicago

"Eminently readable debut novel...reminiscent in structure and tone to Vikas Swarup's Q&A (the inspiration behind 'Slumdog Millionaire')...At times funny, surprising, and disturbing..." —Tiffany Lee-Youngren, San Diego Union Tribune

Publishers Weekly
Despite taking place in South Africa during the 1960s, the latest from Heyns (The Reluctant Passenger) treats the looming presence of apartheid cursorily, choosing instead to focus on the subtler conflict between the elite English and the much-despised Afrikaners. At Wesley College, an English-speaking boarding school, Simon, the teenage son of an English magistrate father and an Afrikaner mother, keeps quiet about his mixed ethnicity, but is forced to confront his past when a group of Afrikaner students from a nearby technical school arrive at Wesley for a tennis match and Simon recognizes Fanie van den Bergh, a primary school classmate. The book then alternates between the fated day of the tennis match and memories from Simon's childhood. All of these recollections chronicle Simon's attempt to establish his own sense of morality in the face of the racist conservatism of the adult world, but while the book successfully unveils the moral hypocrisy of the era, Simon's recollections lack the coherence needed to transform the mundane adolescent experience—sexual discoveries, troublesome friends, forging an identity—into a compelling story. (Aug.)
Library Journal
This tale of growing up in 1960s South Africa revolves around two characters who are polar opposites. The narrator, Simon, is the bookish son of a local magistrate, while quiet Fanie Van Den Burgh comes from a more modest background. The two somewhat reluctant friends meet again when Fanie plays in a tennis match at Simon's private high school, competing for her lowly technical school. In a series of flashbacks, Simon recalls his and Fanie's past growing up in and around the village of Verkeerdespruit, a rural backwater in the Orange Free State. Just as Fanie could be a side of Simon's character that he is unwilling or unable to face, so the country is divided not only between whites and blacks but also between the English and Afrikaans languages and cultures and rural and modern urban life. The story comes to a climax when Simon goes against his old friend in the final match, as various dramatic, sexual, and cultural themes come into play. VERDICT This probing and perceptive coming-of-age tale features artfully sketched characters and offers a vibrant portrait of a country and culture in conflict. While the audience may be limited by the setting, it is quality literary fiction worth considering.—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta

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Tin House Books
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4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Children's Day

By Michiel Heyns

Tin House Books

Copyright © 2009 Michiel Heyns
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-9802436-6-6

Chapter One

1962 Children naturally take an interest in any newcomer, whether as object of their charity or as victim of their persecution. Thus even Fanie van den Bergh created a little hush of attention when he was brought into the classroom by the principal, Mr. Viljoen, and assigned a desk by Miss Jordaan in the front of the class, across the aisle from mine. On a first frankly exploratory stare, he seemed candidate for neither charity nor persecution - that is, he seemed just ordinary. He was very thin, but then so were many of the children in the class; he was poorly dressed in slightly grubby clothes, but again that was hardly noteworthy in Verkeerdespruit. He was wearing a pair of scuffed shoes, which did set him apart from the predominantly barefooted class, but that was understood as a concession to his first day at school. Verkeerdespruit people, my mother used to say, had to prove that they possessed shoes. I never wore shoes, not even on the last day of term when everybody else did. In the course of the morning Miss Jordaan asked her new pupil a few questions, partly to make him feel at home and partly, I suppose, because she also felt a certain curiosity: she hadn't been in Verkeerdespruit long enough to have ceased hoping for an exception. Fanie certainly was not it: her questions elicited only the usual dour silence of ignorance or shyness or both. She and the twenty-five members of the Standards One and Two class settled down again to their routine, and Fanie van den Bergh took his unremarkable place in the unexacting primary educational system of the Orange Free State. At first break what curiosity remained was soon satisfied: Fanie was willing to join in games of kennetjie, which suggested an acceptable combination of conformity and defiance of authority; kennetjie, a somewhat rudimentary game in which the bat was a long stick and the ball was a short stick, was officially outlawed since Marius Venter had received a cut on his forehead while trying to field one of Louis van Niekerk's more vigorous efforts. Fanie was uncommunicative about his origins, though he admitted to coming from Ficksburg, which was neither near enough to make him one of us nor far enough to be exotic. He was nine years old, which was the standard age in our class, except for Tjaart Bothma, whose father had taken him out of school for a year because he had found a reference to evolution in our Nature Studies book. It was generally believed that Tjaart's father, who was known as Bobbejaan-Bakkies Bothma, Baboon-face Bothma, felt as strongly as he did about the theory of evolution because it accounted so unflatteringly for his own appearance; but we did not generally refer to baboons in Tjaart's company, because his year's advantage in age gave him a disproportionate advantage in size. The only slightly unusual thing about Fanie was that he had neither brothers nor sisters: one-child families were not common in Verkeerdespruit in 1962. Although I myself was in fact an only child, this did not seem to require explanation, since I was used to our family being slightly different from the rest of the village. But Fanie was in every other respect so ordinary that even this slight deviation from the four-child norm of the time and place seemed an anomaly. His father was the new barman at Loubser's Hotel, replacing Schalk Redelinghuis, who, rumor ran, had drunk up all the profits. From this we deduced that his father was a man of sober habits, and Louis van Niekerk stated with knowing emphasis, "Then that's why he's an only child." "Why?" I asked reluctantly, unwilling to give Louis an opening to show off his powers of deduction. "Because his father's a barman, of course," he said smugly. "That means he comes home too late." I wanted to ask too late for what, but since that was clearly what Louis van Niekerk wanted me to do, I simply said, "Oh," and pretended to take a thorn out of my foot. So Fanie van den Bergh, having been explained and categorized, ceased to occupy our minds. Nobody was nasty to him, and some were friendly: those with no particular friend who thought that perhaps Fanie might be it, and others like myself who had been taught that one should be kind to strangers. I can't remember that I was ever given a reason for this precept, but I accepted it as I accepted that one should not wipe one's nose on one's sleeve or talk of kaffirs - a sign of our difference from the rest of Verkeerdespruit. My father was the magistrate, and we lived in the secondbiggest house in Verkeerdespruit after the pastorie-the third-biggest in fact - but the biggest of all belonged to Dr. Mazwai in the location and thus did not count. Nor did the pastorie really, because that belonged to the church, which meant that we paid for it with the sixpences we put in the collection plate. So it was possible to believe that we owned the biggest house in Verkeerdespruit, and I believed it. Apart from this, my father was English-speaking, which was if not unique then relatively rare in Verkeerdespruit; my name, Simon, was supposed to be pronounced in the English way, though this was regarded as an affectation by my peers. My parents came from the Cape, which was bigger even than Bloemfontein and generally accepted to be considerably more advanced. As for Verkeerdespruit ... Verkeerdespruit had no claims to the regard of the rest of the world. It featured in our school history book only as the home of a minor "friendly" native tribe - which meant that they had not put up any resistance to the occupation of their land by the Voortrekkers - and as the place where two Voortrekker leaders, having no enemy against which to unite, had quarreled with each other, causing one group to trek on in a huff to meet obliteration at the hands of a less docile indigenous community in Natal and leaving the other to settle what became, not very spectacularly, the white village of Verkeerdespruit. Even the name Verkeerdespruit, the wrong creek, had something depressed about it, as if the founders had recognized their mistake but lacked the initiative to do anything about it. The heroic group that had set off to annihilation elsewhere was commemorated annually in a lugubrious ceremony around the square of cement imprinted with the tracks of the ox wagon that had visited Verkeerdespruit during the centennial ox wagon trek of 1938. The square of cement also bore the distinct imprint of a high-heeled shoe, according to popular legend belonging to the mayor's wife, who had a drinking problem. All in all, my ambitions were larger than my environment. I knew, in any case, that I was going to be sent to Free State College in Bloemfontein after Standard Five. My mother said that after a certain age you needed more from school than what she called The Basics; Verkeerdespruit, she said, was probably as Basic as you could get without severe mental deprivation. So in being nice to Fanie van den Bergh I was simply demonstrating a standard of behavior more exacting than that of the rest of Verkeerdespruit. I told my mother about the new boy, and she went to visit his mother, as she visited all newcomers to the village, partly as her social duty, partly in her capacity as secretary of the Oranje Vrouevereniging, or OVV, a women's charitable organization that looked after poor white people. She reported that the Van den Berghs were indeed very poor and that she would have to make regular visits, which she did not look forward to because Mrs. Van den Bergh talked incessantly and, though older than my mother, called her "Auntie." Prompted, after all, to my own form of charity by my mother's news, I offered Fanie van den Bergh one of my sandwiches at break, but he declined - not very graciously, I thought. It was a white-bread sandwich, which was regarded as a delicacy, white flour not being subsidized like the brown flour that the poor people used. When I saw Fanie accepting a vetkoek from Louis van Niekerk, I concluded that he was not used to white bread and did not know that it was better for him than vetkoek. My mother did not make vetkoek. In spite of this rebuff, I occasionally helped Fanie van den Bergh with his sums. He seemed more appreciative of this than of the sandwich, though he was satisfied to be given the answers and showed little interest in my explanations of how I had arrived at them. I couldn't help him with reading: explaining why a particular combination of marks means dog rather than cat was beyond my powers. It seemed to me that Fanie should be able to arrive at so simple a distinction without explanations. "Can't you tell the difference between cat and dog?" I'd ask in exasperation, and "No," he would reply stolidly. "Then what's that?" I asked, pointing at Mrs. Maree's mongrel fortuitously trotting past the school fence. Mrs. Maree lived next to the school and regularly complained about some aspect of our behavior. Her dog, though, was friendly, and sometimes condescended to visit my six-month-old puppy, Dumbo. "That's Skollie," he said. "Yes, but what sort of thing is Skollie? A dog or a cat?" I added quickly, to narrow down the available categories. "A dog, of course," he said, looking at me as if I were the moron. "Then if you can recognize a dog when you see one, why can't you recognize the word when you see it?" I asked triumphantly. He thought for a moment. "Because the word doesn't have a tail and ears," he said at last. "But a cat also has a tail and ears," I pounced, delighted at having him play into my pedagogical strategy so obligingly; but he only said, "Not like a dog's." I heard later that he'd told Tjaart Bothma that I didn't know the difference between a cat and a dog, and I decided that Fanie van den Bergh was stupid. He himself seemed strangely unaware of this and went his way impassively, apparently unperturbed by his lack of prowess. Nor did Miss Jordaan try to bring home to him his hopeless state, as she did to some others in the class. This seemed unfair, since most of the chastised were in fact less hopeless than Fanie. Having done my duty by Fanie van den Bergh, I was prepared to consign him to the obscurity appropriate to his gifts, and I stopped trying to teach him anything. I was still kind to him, of course, but there didn't seem to be anything much to be kind about. My mother unwittingly confirmed me in this conviction in her accounts of her visits to Fanie's mother. "I don't know," she announced one evening after supper, "why we bother." "Why we bother with what?" asked my father. "Oh, with people who can't be helped, like Mrs. van de Bergh." This interested me. "Why can't she be helped?" "I don't think she wants to be helped. I took her that recipe book that we produced, the one with nutritious meals ..." "You mean Healthy Meals for Large Families?" my father smiled. "Yes, and now she complains that it doesn't contain a recipe for vetkoek - I mean, vetkoek, the stuff is pure starch and fat, it's exactly the kind of thing we're trying to get these people to stop eating." "Why does she want to make vetkoek?" I asked, pursuing a line of thought of my own. "It seems her son has been nagging her to make it. I told her to tell him it's bad for him, but I don't think she believes me." I nodded; so Fanie had after all preferred Louis's vetkoek to my mother's white bread. "And besides," my mother continued, "she tells me she can't use the book because they haven't got a large family. She just doesn't see the point." "And what is the point?" asked my father. "Well, that the recipes are meant for people who are too poor to afford meat and eggs and things." "Then why didn't you call it Healthy Meals for People Who Are Too Poor to Afford Meat and Eggs and Things?" my father asked. "Oh really, John, that's not the point!" my mother laughed, and, in spite of her laugh, which I didn't understand, I could see what she meant. The point was that the Van den Berghs couldn't see the point. So, unlike my mother, who kept trying to raise the Van den Bergh standard of living, I stopped bothering. Fanie van den Bergh took his place among the featureless objects of Verkeerdespruit and would have remained there had he not turned out to be, after all, exceptional. This fact, startling in itself, was brought home to us in a sensational manner. We were mumbling and stumbling our way through Loud Reading - always a trial to me, who read ahead and then got impatient with the other children's halting progress. As a result my attention was at leisure to survey the rest of the class, most of them with their eyes fixed rigidly on the page in front of them, terrified lest they be called upon to read. Fanie's attention seemed more fixed than most: if it had been possible to decipher a word by staring at it, he would have been a star reader. He gazed at his book with what I took to be a craving to understand; then suddenly, without any preliminary, he fell sideways off his desk and slumped on his back in the aisle. This was so unexpected that my categories of human behavior were taken completely by surprise. As I stared at him in a kind of horror of incomprehension, he went completely rigid, arching his back and clenching his fists. By now most of the rest of the class was watching, though Miss Jordaan, intent upon helping the fumbling reader of the moment, was unaware of anything untoward. Somebody giggled at the back of the class. "Fanie! Get up!" I whispered, more to reassert my own sense of normality than because I thought it would have any effect. The effect was in fact extraordinary: Fanie started convulsing rhythmically, knocking his head against the floor. By the time Miss Jordaan reached him, foam was appearing at his mouth and half the class was hysterical. "Shut up!" she snapped in passing at Jesserina Schoeman, who was more agitated than most, and shook her arm roughly. Jesserina gulped and shut up. Miss Jordaan knelt by the frantically undulating body of Fanie van den Bergh and seized his shoulders. "Fanie!" she shouted, and I could see that she was almost as terrified as we were. Then she found a category. "He's having a fit," she announced. The information calmed us immediately. We'd heard of fits. The horrible visitation had been named, explained, tamed in our minds. The only person unaffected by this exorcism was Fanie, who continued beating his head against the floor, his eyes and mouth clenched tight. "He's going to swallow his tongue," declared Miss Jordaan, reawakening the dread of the bizarre in our minds. She seized his jaw. "Get me a ruler." Mine was closest. Miss Jordaan grabbed it from my fumbling hand and started prizing open Fanie's rigid mouth with her left hand, holding the ruler in her right. She forced his teeth apart just far enough to get her fingers clamped tight between his jaws. She screamed and hit Fanie on the head with the ruler. Jesserina Schoeman also screamed, and Miss Jordaan hit her on the leg. This served to calm both Miss Jordaan and Jesserina, but it had little effect on Fanie. Miss Jordaan set to work at forcing open his jaws with the ruler and managed to extricate her fingers. I noticed with fascination that they were bleeding. Miss Jordaan by now had the ruler lodged in Fanie's mouth, and she relaxed. "Now at least he won't swallow his tongue," she said grimly, in a tone implying that by rights he should be left to swallow it and be damned. Reassured, we forgave Fanie for biting Miss Jordaan and watched him more dispassionately. The fit lasted about five minutes. Then the convulsions stopped abruptly, and Fanie went limp, his eyes still shut. The ruler fell from his mouth with a clatter, and I retrieved it, examining with interest the tooth marks in the wood. "Let me see," whispered Annette Loubser, and the ruler made its way from hand to hand through the enthralled class, witness to the passion of Fanie's fit. We carried Fanie to the principal's office, the clearinghouse of all crises, and Mr. Viljoen drove him home. Miss Jordaan, her fingers bandaged from the first-aid tin in the principal's office, slightly pale with pain and shock, explained the fit to us. "Some people get fits like this because of a disease they have," she said. "They're not dangerous," (glancing briefly at her bandaged fingers) "but you must be careful not to give them a fright or anything, because that can bring on the fit."


Excerpted from The Children's Day by Michiel Heyns Copyright © 2009 by Michiel Heyns. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michiel Heyns is the author of four novels: The Children’s Day, The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter’s Tale, and Bodies Politic. He has translated two works by Marlene van Niekerk, Agaat and Memorandum, and he has recently translated Equatoria by Tom Dreyer, (Aflame Books UK) 2008. He reviews regularly for the Sunday Independent. He was awarded the English Academy's Pringle Prize for reviewing in 2006 and the Sunday TimesFiction prize in 2007for his translation of Agaat.

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