The theme of The Undesirables came into focus when I saw a pair of haunting eyes looking up from a faded photograph.
The idea to research the Anglo-Boer War as the backdrop for a novel was already in place by the time I saw the picture, as I considered telling the story of my grandfather, a young British soldier in the conflict.
But the moment I saw Lizzie van Zyl, The Undesirables took on a much more important purpose. From that point, I knew the book would not be about a British soldier, but would examine the lives of the Boer women and children who suffered and died in British concentration camps.
Like most, I connected the term “concentration camp” with the Holocaust. But the British introduced the concept, to horrific effect, decades earlier in South Africa. While Boer men of all ages were using commando tactics to prolong a lopsided war, the British burned their farms and interned the suddenly homeless women and children.
In little over a year, an estimated 22,000 children died from starvation, malnutrition, poor sanitation or preventable diseases in these camps. The total number of child fatalities in the camps was nearly three times the number of soldiers’ deaths in combat on both sides over the length of the war.
I was ignorant of these grim facts when I first saw the death-bed picture of little Lizzie. She was just seven or eight when it was taken. Lying on ragged bedding, she is uncovered but for a small cloth, her flesh revealing only bone and sinew.
Her hair is cropped, probably against the persistent infestations of lice in camp. Her face hints at a beauty that will never blossom, her cheek bones high and wide, and her lips pulled back to suggest an attempted smile.
“I felt an obligation to remind readers of the stories of these camps”
It’s her eyes, though, that still disturb more than a century later. They are pale and curious, and seem to be asking: “Why?” According to reports, she died shortly after the picture was taken, suffering the effects of typhoid fever.
The photo fueled my research, and the more I learned, the more guilty I felt that I hadn’t known of this tragedy. And it became obvious that few others knew of it, either. I felt an obligation to remind readers of the stories of these camps and the lost children like Lizzie.
When it came time to find the fictional voice to tell the story, I read many letters and diaries of those in camps, hoping to understand the depth of their hardships. One such book I read was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. Frankl’s conclusion was that, in such dire conditions, people need to have at their core a strong and specific purpose to sustain their will to live.
For my fictional character Aletta Venter, that one thing was the dream to write, so that she could be the one to tell the story of her family and their lives inside the camp. The words, filled with youthful hope, gave her a voice that could reach beyond the fences and off into the future. As narrator of The Undesirables, she gets the chance to tell her story and to remind the world of what happened to the women and children of the Boer War.
The photograph of Lizzie van Zyl was taken by Emily Hobhouse between 1894 and 1901.
The Undesirables by Dave Boling is available to order in paperback.