Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The River runs through it...

The town of Cradock - setting for The Housemaid's Daughter - sits on the banks of the Great Fish River.
Its arid Karoo source has, historically, been the reason for the mercurial nature of the river, giving rise to alternating periods of drought and flood, as I hope you can make out from the contrasting sepia photos (raging surge vs puddles and sandbanks).

For Cathleen, newly arrived in the town in the early 1900s, it's a strange, initially rather sluggish river, very different from the bubbling waters of her native Ireland.
I confess I look out of the window and imagine it is the stream over Bannock cliffs that I hear, not the dull brown rush of the river they call the Groot Vis.

As a result of the river's uncertain flow, Cradock has often been drought-stricken.
The ground between the koppies broke into steep gullies. The Groot Vis was reduced to a trickle. Water was rationed. We washed from buckets.
And yet, within hours, the same meek shallows can become a torrent, rampaging through the lower reaches of the town as happened in the flood of 1974, featured in the book. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that such an unpredictable river should also have a conflicted human history. In the 1800s, the Groot Vis served as the border between settlers from the Cape Colony and local Xhosa tribes. For decades, clashes and wars took place along its length as each side attempted to wrest control.

In writing the novel, I realised that the river could play a key part not just for its physical attributes but also as a dividing line between the communities that made up Cradock, just as it had served as a disputed frontier in the past.
Ada sees this division clearly.
I stood in the centre of the bridge, with white Cradock on one side and black Cradock on the other and the brown water of the Groot Vis creeping beneath me.
What should I do?

More about the river next time.
How, in the end, it was tamed. Again, not without consequence. Or dispute.
And how Ada and Cath learned to cross over...

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