News at the University of New Brunswick

Fred Stenson to read from his new novel The Great Karoo

Author: Communications

Posted on Feb 23, 2010

Category: UNB Saint John

Award-winning writer and Novelist-in-Residence at UNB for 2009-10, Fred Stenson will read from his new novel, The Great Karoo on Monday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in the Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre as part of UNB Saint John's Lorenzo Reading Series.

Fred Stenson is the author of seven works of fiction and eight non-fiction pieces. The Great Karoo, published in 2008, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award in Fiction and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Canada and Caribbean region). Stenson's earlier novels Lightning (2003) and The Trade (2000) both won the Grant MacEwan Author's Prize, and The Trade - a finalist for the Giller Prize - also won the George Bugnet Award and the City of Edmonton Book Prize. A film and video writer, Stenson is Director of The Wired Writing Studio, The Banff Centre.

About the novel, The Great Karoo

In the dying days of Queen Victoria's Empire, several dozen prairie cowboys join the Canadian Mounted Rifles for service in the Boer War (1899-1902). The Great Karoo features four of them. Events are seen from Frank Adams' perspective. Like Ovide Smith, an older cowboy with an expertise in horses, and Jefferson Davis, a "Halfbreed" descendent of Blackfoot Chief Red Crow, Adams, a ranch hand, is from the MacLeod area. Fred Morden is from Pincher Creek, a rival community, 30 miles distance.

The Great Karoo begins with their enlistment and training, their cross-Canada train trip for embarkation at Halifax. During the godawful sea-crossing, men and horses endure abysmal shipboard conditions. When Morden's gelding dies in the hold's "wet oven," the horse must be winched aloft to the deck. An accident occurs and Morden blames Jeff Davis: "You stupid Halfbreed bastard." The incident prefigures missteps in common decency among the cowboys and their need to set those right.

Frank Adams fears most forgetting who he is, losing himself. Little interested in the heroics of war, he savours the beauty of South Africa, values friendship. When Adams and Ovide are assigned the detail of walking lamed horses in seasurf to heal their hooves, Adams says to himself "Keep this. Take it with you when you go." On the journey inland to the Great Karoo, the desert, he experiences emotions at a "juttering rate" in response to the landscape: the reader comes to know the varied topography through his eyes.

The Great Karoo explores the ways in which war - not to mention thirst, starvation, sunstroke, and enteric fever - tests loyalty and friendship. But above all, it is an exposé of military mismanagement, a critique of high-sounding talk about Empire, and the British officers' dismissive attitude towards the army's colonial soldiers. While place names and dates guide the reader through the multi-directional movements of the British army in its mostly useless campaign against the Boers, a parallel critique unfolds in England.

General Butler, who had been in command a year earlier in South Africa, is suffering demotion and disgrace. His idea had been negotiation with the Boers, an idea that earned him the condemnation of the press, and worse, the accusation that he was responsible for the army's unreadiness for war. Although his wife Elizabeth, a war artist, blames her recent unpopularity on his disgrace, the General believes they are both the casualties of "time and change": the Boer War changed the technology of war, leaving them both behind. Her paintings, lacking depictions of "lyddite bombs" and "the ever-longer howitzers," are outdated. A veteran of the Red River campaign, and a friend of Red Crow's, the General wonders, "What was the point of killing an enemy you could not see, who could not see you?"

"There are many characters, and each has a story to tell ... an engrossing read." Prairie Fire Magazine.


Patty O'Brien, Communication Officer (506) 648-5707