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Whitethorn :  A Novel of Africa - Bryce Courtenay


A Novel of Africa


Published: January 2007
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Published: 8th January 2007
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From Bryce Courtenay comes a novel of Africa. The time is 1939. White South Africa is a deeply divided nation with many of the Afrikaner people fanatically opposed to the English.

The world is also on the brink of war and South Africa elects to fight for the Allied cause against Germany. Six-year-old Tom Fitzsaxby finds himself in The Boys Farm, an orphanage in a remote town in the high mountains, where the Afrikaners side fiercely with Hitler's Germany.

Tom's English name proves sufficient for him to be ostracised, marking him as an outsider. And so begin some of life's tougher lessons for the small, lonely boy. Like the whitethorn, one of Africa's most enduring plants, Tom learns how to survive in the harsh climate of racial hatred. Then a terrible event sends him on a journey to ensure that justice is done. On the way, his most unexpected discovery is love.

'Courtenay is an undeniably talented storyteller ... [He] knows what his readers want and how to deliver.' Courier-Mail

'Tom Fitzsaxby could stand proudly alongside Tom Brown or Tom Sawyer any day.' Sydney Morning Herald

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and has lived in Sydney for the major part of his life. He is the bestselling author of The Power of One, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk, Jessica, Smoky Joe's Cafe, Four Fires, Whitethorn and Brother Fish.


WOW,what a Story!!!!


Completely satisfied




5.0 1


True love came to me one crisp late autumn morning when the sky had lost the faded blue of the long hot summer and taken on the deeper colour of winter yet to come. I discovered it in a hessian sack floating down the bit of a creek that ran around the back of the orphanage. I waded into the shallow stream, the water reaching to just below the hem of my khaki shorts, the current pulling at my skinny legs. The stream, already icy from the high mountains, was extra cold from the frosty morning, so that I inched and ouched my way towards the floating sack, grabbed hold of it and drew it back against the current to finally rest it on the bank of wet black pebbles.

I untied the bag, no easy task I can tell you, the twine binding was knotted and slippery wet and my fingers near frozen. I peeped into the dark interior and, unable to see what it contained, up-ended it. To my surprise out plopped six dead puppies. Flippity-flop! Oh my Gawd!

With six dead dogs on my hands I knew I was in big trouble. What if someone came upon me and there were these dead puppies lying at my feet? I hastily dropped each one back into the sack, ready to return it to the stream. But as I grabbed the last one, the smallest of them all, it seemed to quiver and its mouth opened and gave a sort of gasp, so I gave it a bit of a squeeze and it vomited a jet of water. I squeezed it again and more water came out. One back leg started to jerk, I squeezed a third time and it must have been empty because nothing happened, except that it started to breathe.

Well, you can't just put a nearly dead puppy back in the sack and hope for the best, can you? So I took him beyond the shade of the overhanging mimosa and laid him down in a patch of sunlight. Then I quickly retied the bag and dragged it back to the stream and watched as the current caught it and it floated away around a rocky corner and was soon out of sight. I must say I was glad to see the last of it, five dead puppies lying at your feet is no way to start a morning. But then it struck me that a live puppy was going to be a lot more trouble than a dead one. How was a little kid in an orphanage where you were not allowed to have anything of your own going to look after a puppy?

Suddenly my life had become very complicated. I sat in the warm sun beside the puppy, stroking its pink tummy, which by now was pumping up and down thirteen to the dozen as it came truly alive and started to get warm again. I was accustomed to getting into trouble, mostly because of my surname, Fitzsaxby. I was English, well, that's what my name said I was anyway, and I was in the Deep North, high mountain country, Boer territory where the English were hated because of what they'd done in the Boer War. They'd started the world's first concentration camps and filled them with Boer women and children from the farms; many came from these mountains. That wasn't the bad part. The reason they hated the British was because 27 000 of them died of dysentery and blackwater fever and other terrible and unsanitary things. In a way, it was understandable that they hated me for being English, you don't forget things like what happened to your own ouma so easily, do you?

I picked up the still wet puppy and clasped him to my chest and he began to suck on my thumb and whimper. There was no doubt he was properly alive again and I had acquired a problem too big for a six-year old boy's brain. All of a sudden it struck me, my friend Mattress, the pig boy, would know what to do.

Mattress was my friend even if he was a grown-up. If you're black you get called 'boy' even if you're an old man, you can be a garden boy, kitchen boy, farm boy, house boy or a pig boy like Mattress, because he looked after the orphanage pigs and also worked with the cows in the dairy. I can tell you, having a friend like him was good because having friends in that place wasn't easy when you had an English name. Nobody wanted to be the friend of the rooinek, which is what they called you if you were English. It means redneck. One thing was for sure, the concentration camp business never went away but was always pointing a finger at you. Rooinek, you are evil! God is going to punish you and you are going to hell, you hear!

This is what happened to the Boere. I know it's true because on Sundays when we had to attend church the preacher stood up in his long black robes with a little white starched bib under his chin, it must have been there to catch the spit when he got angry with the English. Which is what he did every Sunday morning without fail. He got all worked up and thumped the pulpit and started going on and on. Soon he'd be red in the face and spit came flying out of his mouth and sprayed onto his beard that almost covered the entire bib, so after all that trouble to wear it, the bib wasn't any good for catching spit. At first I would get really frightened, me being the only Englishman in the congregation and him saying I was the devil's children. Not me personally, he didn't point to me, but I guess it amounted to the same thing. All the other kids would turn and look at me and the guys on either side of me would give me a sharp dig in the ribs and whisper verdomde rooinek, damned redneck.

But then I worked out a scenario that went like this. The preacher, who in Afrikaans is called a Dominee, had this big round head with jet-black hair that was parted down the centre and was plastered down on his head with grease so that it looked just like a shiny beetle's back. He also had ears that stuck out like small saucers on either side of his head. With the light coming from a window at the hack of the pulpit they'd glow. As he got more and more worked up over the English and the concentration camps, his ears looked like red lights glowing on the sides of the beetle's back. He had beady little obsidian eyes that disappeared into bushy eyebrows while the rest of his face was covered with that large black beard that came way down to the centre of his chest. So, after we'd sung a few hymns and Dominee De Jager arrived at the pulpit carrying a big Bible under his arm with pieces of white paper sticking out to mark his places, I'd be ready. I'd sort of narrow my eyes and concentrate really hard on the top part of his head so that it became the big black beetle with large red ears and tiny hard shiny black eyes. The beetle would be busy chomping on a lush crop of black beard. Suddenly he was no longer a huge frightening preacher man condemning my kind to hell, but instead became 'The Great Scarlet-eared Beard-chomping Black Beetle'. After that I wasn't frightened of him any more.

The Boer War happened in the 1890s when the English fought the Afrikaners because they wanted the gold that people all of a sudden were finding all over the place. The Boere said no way and the war went on for ages, the Boere on horseback in commandos and the British in regiments on foot. The Boere would attack and could shoot the eye out of a potato at a thousand yards with their German Mauser rifles while the British with their Lee-Enfield rifles couldn't fire accurately at that distance and besides they were mostly lousy shots because they weren't born on the veld. Then the Boere would gallop away, and at night every once in a while they'd sneak back to their farms to get food and stuff so they could fight the enemy on the run for the next week or so. It was biltong mostly, which is dried meat cured in the sun and you can live on it all week with a bit of flour or mielie meal thrown in. What the Boere did is called guerilla warfare and the British didn't like it one bit. It was like chasing galloping shadows. Even though the English outnumbered the Boer soldiers fourteen to one, they weren't winning the way they expected to, them being the British Empire and all that. So they came up with an evil plan called 'a scorched earth policy'. They burnt down all the farms and put all the Boer women and children in concentration camps where they died like flies.

Anyway, that's what the Dominee said happened and that's why it was impossible for any of the Afrikaner kids to be my friend. But Mattress didn't seem to mind and said that black people were accustomed to being hated by the Boere and that I could be his friend if I wanted. He said both his grandfathers had fought the British and the Boere and if they hadn't had guns the Zulu warriors would have beaten the pants off them and nearly did anyway. So he didn't give a shit because they were both bastards (present company excluded) and the Zulu Impi were, man for man, the best of the lot and would march over a cliff and fall to their certain death to show how brave they were. 'Ahee, Kleinbaas, when they attacked, the earth trembled and it was like thunder in the mountains.' I didn't tell him I thought that marching over a cliff was a bit stupid, but it certainly showed they were brave.

Now I don't want you to think all Boere are bad because they are not, they can be very good and kind people, it's just that they have a right to hate the English and I just happened to be one. I don't know how it happened because I was an orphan, but there you go, it was an accident of birth and nobody could do anything about it.

In an orphanage there's a lot of unkindness going about even for the Afrikaner kids, it's called discipline. It was just that I got a bit extra from the kids as well for having a name like Fitzsaxby that couldn't be made to sound Afrikaans, no matter how you said it. They didn't like to say my surname so they called me Voetsek, which is an Afrikaans word that you yell at a strange dog if it comes up to you. You give it a kick and you say 'Voetsek!' and every dog knows the word and runs away. It means 'bugger off' in dog language, only a bit worse. It's not a very nice thing to happen to a person's name but it was another thing I couldn't do anything about.

You'll probably think Mattress is a funny name for a person, but when you look at it through his eyes there isn't a lot of difference between Matthew and Mattress. He liked the sound of Mattress better. When I told him a mattress is something people sleep on he shook his head, 'Ahee, Kleinbaas, I am not sleep on this thing, I am Zulu and must have a grass mat.' Besides, Mattress sounds much better than Matthew because it doesn't have the 'phew!' sound in it. Anyway, that's what I thought and, besides, it was a whole lot better than Voetsek.

Mattress sat on the low stone wall of the pigsty with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands and listened intently while I explained my problem to him in Zulu.

'Ahee, Kleinbaas, we have a big, big problem here.' He dropped one hand to rest on his thigh and rubbed his chin. 'That dog is too small.'

I explained to him that there were bigger ones but they were dead.

'No, it is too small to feed on its own. Look, its eyes are not yet open, it must have milk from the bitch and where is she, eh?'

I shrugged and pointed to a higher part of the mountains. 'Up there, he came downriver.'

'The bitch, she must be on a farm upstream somewhere.'

'Can we find this bitch?' I asked hopefully. 'You could go and take a look?'

He thought for a moment. 'You found this dog in a sack?'

I nodded.

'And the sack was tied with string?'

I nodded again.

'Intentional murder.' He pointed to the puppy cradled in my arms. 'If we find the bitch the Boer will murder the dog all over again. He didn't want those dogs.'

'That's all very well but what are we going to do?' I said, shifting the responsibility onto Mattress, the way white people are allowed to do with black people any time they like.

He didn't reply for a long time and you could hear him thinking, Ahee! What are we going to do? What are we going to do? What are we going to do? I could almost hear it going round and round in his head like things sometimes go in mine when I'm in the deep shit. 'Voetsek, you in the deep shit, man,' one of the boys would say when something went wrong in the dormitory and I was going to be the one they were going to blame and I didn't know why I was guilty. Deep shit . . . deep shit . . . deep shit, the words would go round and round. I preferred just getting the sjambok rather than having all that deep shit running around in my head.

All of a sudden Mattress's eyes lit up and he clopped his hands and laughed. 'The sow! We'll put him with the big black sow, she won't know the difference.'

'Are you sure?' I asked, uncertain. The big black sow wasn't completely black but black and white just like my new dog and she weighed about 300 pounds. What if she rolled over all of a sudden and my little dog, which probably weighed less than a pound, was in the way? He couldn't even see to jump out of the way.

The sow had twelve piglets that were two weeks old who never let up fighting over the ten available teats, the two left out would squeal like billyo, snuffling and pushing and carrying on a treat until they pushed someone out of the way and got a go. They had fat round bums and curly tails and already they were three times the size of my new dog. I can tell you it was everyone for themselves in that pigsty, just like it was in the orphanage and I didn't like his chances. Frankly, I didn't think much of the solution, how does a puppy that can't even see compete with twelve piglets fighting over ten teats?

'Are you sure?' I asked again, holding up the puppy who was now whimpering and no doubt very hungry. 'Wouldn't he be squashed?'

Mattress thought for a moment. 'We'll give the dog a free go,' he said at last.

'How do you mean?'

'We'll take some of the piglets away from the sow, give her a chance on her own to get a good feed until she's old enough to fight back.'


He clapped his hands and took a step closer and took my puppy by the tail and lifted its bum and hind legs. 'See, no snake, we got ourselves a bitch, Kleinbaas.'

I took a look for myself and Mattress was right, he was a she all right. All of a sudden everything was going wrong. Even at six I knew female dogs have babies and mongrel puppies in an orphanage wasn't possible. I'd last seen an example of what happened in the bottom of that sack. Even having a dog of my own wasn't going to be possible, but a bitch was totally out of the question.

'What will we call her?' he asked.

'Can't, she's a bitch, she'll have babies,' I said sadly.

He nodded. 'Ahee, woman, always trouble,' he agreed. He paused as if thinking. 'Shall I wring her neck?' He brought his big black fists together, turned them in opposite directions and made a sort of cluck that sounded like a bone breaking.

'No!' I yelled. My vehemence was so strong that my whole body trembled and my knees began to shake.

Mattress laughingly placed his large hand on my shoulder to comfort me.

'I'm going to keep her,' I said fiercely, my voice close to a sob. 'She's mine forever!'

He didn't tell me that was impossible, which it was, he just said, 'In that case you'll have to give her a name.'

'Tinker,' I said, not knowing why or where the name came from, it was something deep down from an unknown past, but plain as anything, sounding in my head like a stone shot from a catty striking a tin can.

'Ah, Ten-Kaa!' Mattress said approvingly, splitting her name in half and softening it, because you can't say hard sharp words in the Zulu language.

With her name out of the way I became all business, names give an identity and now Tinker was definitely here to stay.
Bryce Courtenay

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page

ISBN: 9780143004844
ISBN-10: 0143004840
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 688
Published: January 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 12.8  x 4.0
Weight (kg): 0.5
Edition Number: 1