Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Dramatic Scene from The Housemaid's Daughter
In 1974 a devastating flood struck Cradock, the small town in South Africa where The Housemaid's Daughter is set. Cradock lies in the Karoo region, a semi-desert famous for its vast open plains and flat-topped mountains. Ada, the heroine of the book, describes what happens when the Great Fish River - the Groot Vis - comes down in flood.
The Karoo has always been a place of dust and little rain, so when the rain does come, the hard earth is never ready for it and shrugs it off and lets it drain into the Groot Vis, instead of welcoming it into the ground to make the soil soft for planting.
During our Great Flood, the water was not content just to surge, but chose to rip out everything in its path. It was this debris that choked the bridge and made the water back up behind it in a vast dam, and steadily rise above the riverbank until with a mighty gush it overflowed into the nearby streets. This made it not just a normal flood, but a Great Flood...
You can see the debris Ada is talking about, and how it formed a collar of branches that effectively created a dam wall. Part of the bridge collapsed but even this was not enough to allow the water to escape. Instead it poured into the streets of the town, toppling trees and telephone poles, and washing away houses. If you visit Cradock today, it's difficult to imagine the height to which the water rose. But if you go to St Peter's Church, which managed to survive, you can see a line on the wall that marks the high point.
A tragic event can sometimes have an unexpected outcome.
Will the Great Flood actually help Ada?
The maps in the town engineer's office floated away. The jail's records were only partly saved. I wondered if the record of my own arrest - so fresh, so likely to be at the top of the pile - was amongst those swept away by the raging tide and, if so, whether I might slip into the shadows once more...