I found this book while looking for classical (older than 60 yo) women in translation. Johanna Brandt is a Boer, a woman of Dutch decent living in South Africa.
Ah, man. Cognitive dissonance. On one hand, this book depicts Johanna Brandt’s true (as true as an autobiographical book can be) story as a female spy in South Africa during the Boer war. On the other hand, the Boer war was a fight between two European colonial powers fighting for the right to colonize South Africa. On one hand it’s amazing to read about how she outwitted people, simply because there are so few stories about women doing that. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but very often the women who did do daring, clever things during war time aren’t glorified afterwards like a lot of men are. This is especially true when the women where spies, as the Intel part of warfare is very often classified. On the other hand, it does become uncomfortable when she starts talking about the Africans as a backdrop to the whole thing. She talks about how HER side connects more with the Africans, and uses that as justification for why HER side should win.
If, by inspiring feelings of patriotism in the hearts of some of my readers, especially those members of the rising generation to whom this story of adventure may appeal, I succeed in raising the standard of national life, this book will have achieved the purpose for which it was written, and I shall feel more than compensated for having set aside the reluctance with which I faced the thought of the publicity when first I began the work.
I can’t help thinking how much my position plays a part in how I’m reading this book. I’m neither Dutch, British, a person of African descent nor African. I know about the Boer war because I’ve read about it in a book. I can’t help wonder about how I would have reacted if she had been a Nazi f.ex. Nazi-Germany did occupy Norway during WW2, and my grandparents have told me about how the occupation was. Johanna Brandt does mostly Intel. Would I have been more uncomfortable with a Nazi woman doing Intel for HER side, or would I still enjoy the story of a woman who manages to outwit her opponents the way Johanna Brandt does? I don’t know.
“I have my orders,” he said, with a black look, “and if you don’t remove those colours from your hat immediately, I shall send some one to take them off by force.”
“Take the Transvaal first,” she said persuasively, “then you will be quite welcome to my bit of ribbon.”
I am glad I read the book since it gave me insight into a part of history I knew very little about. It’s also a very compelling narrative, similar to Gone with the Wind. I’m also sitting there enjoying how she does gather her Intel, because I think she does it in an interesting way (no, I’m not going to spoil it. Read the book.). There is also a sense of realism in her narration. It reads like a tale of a war survivor.
What do you think? When reading books like this, should the setting matter or should only the narration matter? Is there something of value to read about a war story from different sides? Would things be easier if I just read about the war from a British and South African point of view as well? Can an autobiographical book, or any book, be read and enjoyed outisde of it’s historical context?