Saturday, December 3, 2011

Venture to South Africa (Review)

Today, 3 December 2011, is Jane Shaw’s 101st birthday and it seems appropriate that if I’m going to review one of her books on this day, it ought to be Venture to South Africa. This story was originally written and sold to Lutterworth Press, which had recently published her two Moochers stories, in 1953 under the title Venture to Africa. Lutterworth later sold it to Nelson, the publisher of the highly successful Penny books, and it eventually saw the light of day in 1960.

The story chronicles the transition of the Eliot family from their home in a comfortable London suburb to Johannesburg. The central character is fourteen-year-old Jennifer, who from the very beginning detests the idea of moving away from England. But her father’s doctors have told him that his fragile health requires him to live in a drier, warmer climate than muggy London. So, along with her mother, her cousin Eleanor and her little brother Mike (12) and sister Belinda (10), whose nickname is Blinky, they set sail on the Dumbarton Castle.

Three whole chapters are dedicated to the voyage on the ship. Along the way the children enjoy good meals, the swimming pool and games. They meet the Rivett twins, Candy and Peter, who become their new friends, although Jennifer, against everything South African, takes an instant dislike to Candy. They visit their dog, Susan, in the ship’s kennel. And along the way they stop at Las Palmas, where Belinda and Mike try to cheer Jennifer up by getting her a little white puppy and smuggling it on board. Jennifer loves the dog, whom the children name Little Black Sambo, but she is determined not to like South Africa, which they reach a few days later.

Dr. Eliot greets his family in Cape Town. Having managed by good fortune to smuggle Sambo through customs, the family set off for the long drive to Johannesburg. All of the family are impressed by the new country, although some things about Johannesburg surprise them, e.g., people resting on the roadside at lunchtime. Their lives are documented as they find a place to live, schools, a social life, extra-curricular activities, such as riding and swimming, and friends. Regular riding classes and swimming all year round are things that Jennifer finds hard to resist, and it is obvious that she enjoys them, but she has set her mind on criticizing South Africa at every opportunity. She deliberately gets bad marks at school and picks fights with the other girls in her class whenever they mention British rule.

But the family in general, even Jennifer (secretly), love the visits to the Game Reserve and Loch Vaal, all lovingly described. They enjoy braaivleis, a South African form of barbecue. The younger children happily adopt the local dialect, with words like dabby and gee. Jennifer, of course, refuses to make use of this “ridiculous” form of speech. Mike and Blinky, in their last desperate attempt to improve Jennifer’s mood, buy her a pony from a ragged native boy, with inevitable disastrous consequences. At Christmas they love shopping in Johannesburg and comparing Christmas in the blazing hot sun of South Africa with the festive season back in the freezing United Kingdom. But the underlying theme of Jennifer’s misery permeates the whole story, and in the end even her family tire of her attitude until there is a dramatic showdown between her and her mother that apparently opens her eyes at last.

Like all Jane Shaw stories, this one is well plotted and very consistent in characterization. The descriptions of South Africa are detailed but not overstretched to the point where the reader becomes bored by it. There is the usual comedy and carefree banter between the children and lots of excitement as the new vistas of life in another country are revealed and the family have to adapt to the ways of others and learn to respect them. We learn a great deal about South Africa in the same way that we learn about Brittany in Breton Adventure and Switzerland in Crooks Tour and Susan Interferes, more so as a matter of fact, as the other books are not quite so rich in detail. There is also drama when a lion sits on the bonnet of the Eliots’ car and when Jennifer is confronted by Candy after a gymkhana in a dispute over her pony.

However, there are also differences. This book is one of only four single titles (the others being The House of the Glimmering Light, The Crew of the Belinda and Crooks Tour) in the Jane Shaw oeuvre. And while most of her characters happily blunder along, this story is perhaps the only one where we see a leading character in absolute misery (even for Belle in Susan's Helping Hand things turn out well in the end). It is also unusual in that the ending is not such a happy one. Jennifer reaches the end of the story in a reflective mood and with thoughts that are not exactly joyful; in fact they are quite solemn. That is not to say that there have not been other books where not all has ended well for the main characters. Let us take a look at the closing lines of Susan Muddles Through, when Aunt Lucy receives a letter from Selina Gascoigne:

Darling Gabrielle has been so happy with Midge and Susan that I think it would be nice for them to see more of her. So I have written to their headmistress in Kent to ask if she can squeeze Gabrielle in next term… I’m sure Miss Phillimore will find a place for her. Tell Midge and Susan, I know they’ll be pleased.

Is this a “happy” ending for Susan and Midge? Of course not. But the reader laughs, imagining the conflicts and comic situations that lie ahead. Let us also consider the end of New House at Northmead:

To have restored his picture to Lord Claire was some consolation. There weren’t many others; for in the end-of-term results New House came bottom in every House competition with unfailing regularity.
“Gosh, it’s bad,” said Nicky. “Bottom in everything.”
“Never mind,” said Kay, joyfully throwing clothes, shoes, books into her trunk, “next term we’ll fix it.”

Again, the girls have worked throughout the story to make something of New House and failed miserably. But now they’re off on holiday without a care and the reader doesn’t feel sorry for them. Quite a contrast to Jennifer’s final thoughts in Venture to South Africa as she accepts that living in South Africa isn’t so bad after all but she can’t help pining for her homeland.

What also sets this book apart from the rest is that it is clearly the most autobiographical of Jane Shaw’s works. Jennifer Eliot’s initials, J.E., might also stand for Jean Evans (in 1937 Jean Patrick married Robert Evans). Jennifer went to South Africa because of her father; Jean Evans went because of her husband. The story was written in 1952-53; Jean Evans moved to South Africa in 1952. Jennifer sailed on the Dumbarton Castle; Jean Evans sailed on the Warwick Castle. Jennifer never gives up her dream of returning to Britain; neither does Jean Evans. When Robert retired in 1978, their first move was to return to Scotland, setting up house on Arran. Of course, other books of Jane Shaw’s were based on trips she had made. Highland Holiday is a return to her youthful days holidaying on Arran. The trips to Switzerland that feature in her stories follow routes she took with friends and family and on her honeymoon. But all her other characters returned home and none of these books have such a personal feel about them as does the story of the Eliot family. Jane Shaw learned to love South Africa and it was used as a location in three other stories: Fivepenny Mystery, the opening of which is set in Johannesburg; The Matchmakers, a short story published in the Collins’ Girls’ Annual 1960; and Nothing Happened After All, the second Dizzy and Alison novel. Jennifer’s story is also told in reverse in New House at Northmead, when Lynette has trouble adapting to England after spending most of her life in Rhodesia.

I enjoyed Venture to South Africa a great deal and highly recommend this realistic and honest story, which provides some insight into the feelings of Jane Shaw herself as she underwent the experience of leaving everything behind to go overseas at a time when travelling to South Africa took weeks rather than hours and visits home were few and far between. An excellent story, and I give it nine out of ten.