Ratoons, (n), shoots growing from the root of a plant (esp. sugar cane) that has been cut down…. or burnt.
This novel, originally published in 1953, is set in the British colony of Natal, beginning around the time of the Anglo-Boer Wars. Seen through the eyes of Helen Angus, Ratoons follows the fates of members of two families, the Anguses and a family of Indian workers employed on John Angus’s sugar-farm. Racial tensions are high with Zulus resenting the influx of Indians to their land, and—even worse—the Indians’ increasingly successful attempts to become financially independent.
Helen is at the heart of story. Somehow she manages to avoid absorbing most of the prejudices of her time, though intolerance all but permeates the soil and air. But Helen cannot avoid her desire for Chris Van der Westhuizen. In vain, her Indian friend Leela tries to prevent the affair. Before Helen can tell Chris she’s pregnant, he leaves to fight in the Boer War. The tragic yet timely deaths of Helen’s mother and infant brother shield Nicky’s parentage from all but the midwife, so Chris’s eventual return can’t result in a wedding: in order to raise her own son, Helen cannot marry.
Ratoons isn’t just a book, it’s a vivid portrayal of lives set against the experience of Natal’s inner turmoil. Daphne Rooke’s characters are drawn so convincingly they can almost walk from the page. Yet, in spite of tragedies, the novel also has a light side. Aunt Lucy and Mrs. Lambert could almost be exports from a Jane Austen novel. Reaching the end of the book brings a sense of loss, the same feeling evoked by the loss of many of Rooke’s good people along the way. My method of getting over this was to start the book again. Somehow in this new beginning, the novel’s inhabitants sparkle all the more.