As startling and powerful as when first published more than two decades ago, André Brink's classic novel, A Dry White Season, is an unflinching and unforgettable look at racial intolerance, the human condition, and the heavy price of morality.
Ben Du Toit is a white schoolteacher in suburban Johannesburg in a dark time of intolerance and state-sanctioned apartheid. A simple, apolitical man, he believes in the essential fairness of the South African government and its policies—until the sudden arrest and subsequent "suicide" of a black janitor from Du Toit's school. Haunted by new questions and desperate to believe that the man's death was a tragic accident, Du Toit undertakes an investigation into the terrible affair—a quest for the truth that will have devastating consequences for the teacher and his family, as it draws him into a lethal morass of lies, corruption, and murder.
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About the Author
André Brink is one of South Africa's most distinguished writers. His books include An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain, both of which were short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
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A Dry White Season
By Andre Brink
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Andre Brink
All right reserved.
It all really began, as far as Ben was concerned, with the death of Gordon Ngubene. But from the notes he made subsequently, and from newspaper cuttings, it is obvious that the matter went back much further. At least as far as the death of Gordon's son Jonathan at the height of the youth riots in Soweto. And even beyond that, to the day, two years earlier -- represented in Ben's papers by a receipt with a brief note scribbled on it when he'd started contributing to the schooling of the then fifteen year old Jonathan.
Gordon was the black cleaner in the school where Ben taught History and Geography to the senior classes. In the older journals there are occasional references to "Gordon N." or just "Gordon"; and from time to time one finds, in Ben's fastidious financial statements, entries like "Gordon -- R5.oo"; or "Received from Gordon (repayment) -- R5.00", etc. Sometimes Ben gave him special instructions about notes on his blackboard; on other occasions he approached him for small personal jobs. Once, when some money disappeared from the classrooms and one or two of the teachers immediately blamed Gordon for it, it was Ben who took the cleaner under his wing and instituted inquiries which revealed a group of matric boys to be the culprits. From that day Gordon took it upon himself to wash Ben's car once a week. And when, after Linda's difficult birth, Susan was out ofaction for some time, it was Gordon's wife Emily who helped them out with housework.
As they came to know each other better Ben discovered more about Gordon's background. As a young boy he had arrived from the Transkei with his parents when his father had found employment in the City Deep Mine. And since he showed interest in reading and writing from an early age he was sent to school -- no cheap or easy undertaking for a man in his father's position. Gordon made steady progress until he'd passed Standard Two, but then his father died in a rockfall in the mine and Gordon had to leave school and start working to supplement his mother's meagre income as a domestic servant. For some time he was houseboy for a rich Jewish family in Houghton; later he found a better paid job as messenger for a firm of attorneys in the city, and then as an assistant in a bookshop. Somehow he managed to keep up his reading and the manager of the bookshop, pleased by his interest, helped him to continue his studies. In this way he eventually passed Standard Four.
At that stage Gordon went back to the Transkei. A traumatic experience, as it turned out, since there was no work for him back home, apart from lending a hand with the paltry farming activities of a great-uncle: planting maize, scouring the veld with a lean dog in search of hares for meat, sitting in the sun in front of the hut. He'd left the city because he couldn't stand life there any more; but it proved to be worse on the farm. There was something fretful and desultory in his blood after the years he'd been away. All the money he'd brought with him had gone into lobola -- the dowry for a wife; and barely a year after his arrival in the Transkei he returned to the only place he really knew, Johannesburg, Gouthini. After a brief unsettled spell he landed at Ben's school.
One after another his children were born: in Alexandra, then Moroka, then Orlando. The eldest was Jonathan, his favourite. From the outset Gordon had resolved to rear his son in the traditions of his tribe. And when Jonathan turned fourteen he was sent back to the Transkei to be circumcised and initiated.
A year later Jonathan -- or Sipho, which Gordon said was his "real" name-was back, no longer a kwedini but a man. Gordon had always spoken about this day. From now on he and his son would be allies, two men in the house. There was no lack of friction, since Jonathan obviously had a mind of his awn; but on the main issue they agreed: Jonathan would go to school for as long as possible. And it was just after he'd passed Standard Six and secondary school was becoming an expensive business, that they turned to Ben for help.
Ben made enquiries at Jonathan's school and the family's church and, finding everybody in agreement on the boy's intelligence and perseverance and promise, offered to pay for Jonathan's school fees and books for as long as he continued to do well. He was quite impressed by the youngster: a thin, shy, polite boy, always neatly dressed, his shirt as starkly white as his teeth. In exchange for the financial support, Gordon saw to it that Jonathan agreed to help out in Ben's garden over weekends.
At the end of the first year there were smiles all round when Jonathan produced his school report, showing an average of over sixty per cent. As a reward for his achievement Ben gave him an old suit that belonged to his own son Johan -- the two boys were roughly the same age -- as well as an almost new pair of shoes and two rand in cash.
But in the course of the second year Jonathan began to change. Although he was still doing reasonably well he seemed to have lost interest and often played ,he no longer turned up over weekends for his stint of gardening; his attitude became sullen and truculent and a couple of times he was openly cheeky with Ben. According to Gordon he was spending more time on the streets than at home. Surely no good could come of it.
His fears were soon realised. One day there was trouble at a beer-hall. A gang of tsotsis -- hooligans -- attacked a group of older men, and when the owner tried to throw them out they ran amok in the place, smashing everything in their way. The police arrived in two vans and carted off whatever youngsters they could lay hands on in the vicinity of the beer-hall, Jonathan among them.
The boy insisted that he'd had nothing to do with the commotion, that he'd been on the scene purely by accident when the fighting broke out; but the police witnesses testified that they'd seen him with the gang. The trial was very brief. Owing to a misunderstanding Gordon didn't attend: he had been told it would take place in the afternoon but when he arrived at the courtroom it was all over. He tried to protest against Jonathan's sentence of six cuts, but by that time the flogging had already been administered.
Excerpted from A Dry White Season by Andre Brink Copyright © 2006 by Andre Brink. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Andre Brink portrays the struggles of Ben du Toit, a teacher at one of Johannesburg's elite white-only schools with stunning realism. Not fully aware of the horrors of the Apartheid system, Ben becomes actively involved in the quest for justice when his servant's son, and then his servant himself, are mysteriously killed. The government slowly takes everything Ben has: his honor, his feeling of security, eventually his family and his wife. But we see the true horrors of the Apartheid regime exposed when a police lieutenant, frustrated that despite his attempt to blackmail him, Ben du Toit is still determined to continue his investigation, kills Ben in a hit-and-run accident. The book is extremely compelling and is more informative than reading 10 thick history books on the subject of Apartheid.
Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon. When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide. He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges. Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted. His family can't understand his passion for justice. Here's Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:"They killed Gordon," he said. "First they killed Jonathan, then him. How can they get away with it?""If they'd been guilty the court would have said so. I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon's death, Ben. But it's no use dwelling on it." She pressed his hand more urgently. "It's all over and done with now. You're home again. Now you can settle down like before." (p. 137)But Ben can't settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences. He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues. The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies. ... It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn't mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn't been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn't behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been. (p. 162)André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs. But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own. In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.
Excellent book. I highly recommend it. About a white afrikaaner man trying to help a black family get some justice in 1960s (?) South Africa. He runs across all kinds of problems from the people in Soweto, who have a justifiably difficult time trusting whites; and from the National Party (Afrikaaner) Security Police who control the land and people with threats and violence.
**some spoilers, about what you'd find on the back of the book. **A Dry White Season is not a fluffy book, so don't pick it up unless you are in the mood for some disturbing content. I lay awake in the middle of the night wondering if I'd have been like the main character's wife. It's that kind of book.Brink, who's an Afrikaner, wrote A Dry White Season in 1979. It was banned by the South African government and you'll see why within the first chapter.Ben du Toit is an Afrikaner living a normal white middle-class life - he teaches history and geography, has a wife who feels she deserved a more ambitious go getting-husband, and has 3 kids - two grown-up daughters and a teenage son. He's pretty comfortable about the society he lives in, and has seldom felt the need to rock the boat. But from the start of the book you can see that he's generous and has a stubborn streak, and because of the book's structure you know from the first page how the story will end. The school cleaner, Gordon Ngubene, can't afford the school fees for his son Jonathan, so Ben pays them and the two men becomne friends. Jonathan ends up in jail in one of the Soweto riots, then gets killed while he's in jail. Gordon sets out to find out what happened, and Ben tries to help. He's sure that the justice system will do its job. His life unwinds from there, as his belief system first gets threatened then destroyed.Brink uses a clever structure for the book. It starts off with a chapter from an old school friend of Ben's, who explains how they had lost touch till recently, till Ben calls him to meet him secretly. Brink can then switch from the school friend's narrative to Ben's, to file reports and court documents, so that the whole story feels very immediate.The characters are really well described, even the minor ones, so you get a sweeping picture of attitudes to apartheid and to changing the system. Susan, Ben's wife, is horrified when black people start coming to their house. And the Afrikaner church comes out of it looking pretty terrible. The liberal Afrikaner movement looks bad in hindsight for wanting to change the system from within, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.