A historical saga that is being called “A South African version of The Help,” Barbara Mutch’s novel The Housemaid's Daughter is an apartheid novel that works on a personal, domestic level – exploring the personal histories of people living through an extremely divisive society, and the power of friendship to transcend human divides.
The Fiction Blog is pleased to present this guest post from Barbara Mutch on the inspiration, and the Canadian connections, to her novel.
How did a Canadian-led campaign come to influence a character in a South African novel?
Well... it happened like this.
An uncle of mine served in North Africa during World War II. Tragically, he lost his life towards the end of 1941, at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh. I wanted to pattern one of the characters in The Housemaid's Daughter on him - but I needed to know more, especially as my fictional character, Phil, would survive the war and return to South Africa to play his part in the novel. Phil had to be able to describe his wartime experiences to Ada, the heroine of The Housemaid's Daughter, as authentically as possible. So I headed for various military journals and gathered the facts: the forces involved, the attacks made and defences mounted, the numbers killed and wounded, the effect of the battle on the course of the war in North Africa. But this got me only half way. I realised that it was only when I knew more about the sad fate of my long-deceased uncle, that I would be able to bring the fictional Phil to life.
And so began a most extraordinary 'virtual' journey to trace my uncle's final days. All I knew was that he had died at Sidi Rezegh. I had no date, no record of his rank or regiment, and no details of where he might be buried. My entire journey took place online, although I was in touch with people and resources on three continents. Sidi Rezegh lies not far from Tobruk, in Libya. The battle was fought during Operation Crusader, the Allied push to relieve Tobruk, which had been under siege for most of 1941. South African and New Zealand forces had been involved, and - most significantly - the 2nd South African Irish regiment had been in the thick of the battle. With my family's Irish roots, could this be where he fought and died? Would I be able to confirm it? Or would he remain one of the unknown among the 4000 soldiers killed, wounded or taken prisoner?
And this is where the Canadian connection appears. Tucked away on the Internet, I found the South Africa War Graves Project, a volunteer-run enterprise whose goal is to archive photographs of every SA serviceman's grave from the Anglo Boer War onwards. This huge project is run by the indefatigable Ralph McLean, who lives in Canada and directs a small group of dedicated souls who travel and photograph graves all over the world. Unsung heroes, all...
I gave Ralph my uncle's name, and Sidi Rezegh. And with just those paltry facts, he found him on the project's database: a Corporal in the SA Irish, aged 31, born and brought up in Cradock, South Africa, son of my correctly-named grandparents and husband of a young wife he left behind. My uncle died on 23rd November 1941 and is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Knightsbridge War Cemetery, Acroma, Libya.
And as I laid him to rest and returned to my novel, I found that Phil, his fictional counterpart, was no longer a stranger. He had, indeed, sprung to life.
Thanks to Hachette Book Group and Hachette Book Group UK for sharing this blog, and most of all to Barbara Mutch herself for sharing it. We wish them well with this novel.