Welcome to our #FridayReads feature on the blog, where we’ll be excerpting a chapter of one of our favorite books to start your weekend. This week, it’s Dave Boling’s The Lost History of Stars, an unforgettable novel inspired by Boling’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier during the Boer War.
To learn more about Algonquin’s All Summer Long reading campaign (and to enter to win amazing books and prizes throughout the summer), click here.
Scroll down for an excerpt.
September 1900 — Venter farm
The first warning was so delicate: Moeder’s hanging cups lightly touched lips in the china cabinet. By the time we turned to look at them, stacked plates rattled on the shelves from the vibration of hoofbeats.
“Ma … they’re coming,” Willem said, his voice so calm I didn’t believe him. “It’s them.”
“Is it just our men again?”
“Too much dust, it’s them … the British.”
“Lettie, take your sister … Willem, turn out the stock … Bina, gather food,” my mother said with rehearsed precision.
“I’ll get your point-2-2,” Willem said, retrieving the rifle my mother kept in her bed on the side where my father slept before the war. The weapon was almost as tall as my little brother.
The British swept upon us like a grass fire, and by the time we reached the stoep, two dozen soldiers had dismounted, with more pouring into the barn and rounding up stock. Mother drilled us for this moment every day since the men left almost a year earlier. Her first rule was that the children were not to speak. Not a single word, no matter what the Tommies did. Say nothing, she told us, pointing her finger as if to jab the rule inside us.
“Where are your men?” The officer at the front of the group shouted.
“Out killing British,” I yelled, my silence lasting no more than five seconds.
My mother and the soldiers focused stares at me.
“We know they’ve been here … you’ve been supplying them and that makes you spies,” the officer said. “They destroyed the rail line near here …”
“Were many killed?” I asked.
“Lettie … shhhh,” mother turned at me with such force I feared she’d aim her rifle at me.
“Yes … Lettie … shhh,” the officer mocked, approaching the stairs. “We’ve been getting sniped for miles, and you give them support. We could hang you from that tree. All of you.”
I was enraged. They were at our house, with their fat British horses and their knives on the end of their British rifles. Here … in our country, at our house. They were no longer a vague threat, some distant rumbling in the night. They were here, looking into our faces. I stood tall and narrowed my eyes at the officer. The fool. I took a step toward him, sending hatred in my gaze. I am small … but dangerous.
“Do you have more to say little girl?”
I raised both hands above me, and shook my fists at him … and made a growling noise through my teeth.
The officer laughed. “Will you hurt us with your dolly?”
I had gathered my little sister’s things when they rode up. I still had Cecelia’s doll, Lollie, in my shaking hand. The British were not threatened.
“Stop laughing at her, rooinek,” Moeder shouted, turning the point-2-2 at the officer.
“Put it down, missus …” the officer said. “What …”
A pebble bounced off the officer’s shoulder. Willem had fired his slingshot at him from the corner of the stoep.
A dozen soldiers lifted weapons – half aimed at mother, the others at Willem. Two Tommies twisted at her rifle, a small-caliber shot pinging into the sky before they could wrench it from her.
“We’ll shoot her right now,” the officer said to Willem. “You’ve attacked us with a weapon and she fired a shot; we could hang you all right now. Or put together a firing squad.”
Willem waited, considering …
“Put it down, Willem,” mother said. Willem turned and cocked his head to her. He placed the slingshot on the stoep.
“Bring him here …”
He looked so small, a barefoot 8-year-old under a too-large hat, wiggling as two soldiers dragged him by the arms. They stood him in front of the officer and when they released their grip, Willem straightened into a post.
“Where are the men, boy?”
“Where are the men, boy?”
Silence, with a defiant stare.
“You know the penalty for being a spy … and for attacking an officer,” he said, signaling for men to come forward. “Firing squad.”
I screamed and Moeder pulled at the soldiers holding her arms. She tore free from one but another came from behind and coiled an arm around her throat. My mouth dried so quickly I couldn’t speak. I turned to pick up little Cecelia and shield her eyes.
Five aligned in front of Willem in such a straight line it was clear they had been drilled.
“Stop it, he doesn’t know where they are … none of us knows,” Moeder said. “They haven’t been home … they could be anywhere.”
The officer ignored her, focusing on Willem.
“Where are the men, boy?”
“Brave officer … threatening a little boy,” I said, barely able to raise a sound.
Willem broke his focus on the officer to glare at me.
“It’s no threat … where are the men?”
Moeder twisted again, and the soldier lifted so hard against her neck he squeezed out a choking gasp.
“He doesn’t know,” I said. “They never tell us where they’re going. No, wait, they never come home. They haven’t been home.”
“Aim … where are the men?” The officer screamed this time.
Soldiers’ rifles angled toward his center, Willem inhaled to expand his chest toward their rifles. He curled his bottom lip over his top.
The tension in my arms pinched Cecelia so tightly she raised a wail, so long and at such a pitch, the officer and the men recoiled from their rigid stance.
“As you were,” the officer said.
The squad lowered weapons.
“Fine boy you have there, ma’am,” the officer said to Moeder. “They usually start crying and tell everything they know the second the squad lines up. He’s the first one to just go mute.” He offered his hand to Willem to shake, but withdrew it empty when Willem sneered. “But you’re still spies, and we’re taking you in. You have 10 minutes to get what you can from the house.”
Mother spent the first moments staring at the officer, and then at every Tommy who walked past her, studying each man’s face as if memorizing it for later.
Willem and I scrambled into the house to get our bags as two of the soldiers carried our chests and tossed them from the stoep. In the parlor, a soldier started up at mother’s organ, a man at each shoulder. Offended by their nerve, Moeder rushed at them. She was blocked by the men. The Tommy played so well I stopped to listen. His playing was equal to Moeder’s as he read off the sheet music that had been open on the stand. Three sang in ragged harmony as Moeder stood helpless.
“Rock of ages, cleft for me
“Let me hide myself in thee;
“Let the water and the blood,
“From thy wounded side which flowed
“Be of sin, the double cure
“Save from wrath and make me pure.”
The singing felt so out of place but struck me as the perfect prayer.
Let me hide myself … yes, I thought, please dear God.