Discussion Group Guide for Red Clay, Blood River

Red Clay, Blood River is not only a tapestry of stories about characters and events from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and late twentieth centuries but also a many-layered exploration of slavery, exploitation, memory, and reconciliation. Some people keep a little chart of the three family histories, just to keep things clear when they have to interrupt their reading.

I didn’t include a chart, just to keep your mind on exploration mode! This makes it a wonderful basis for a book discussion group. Here are some questions and thoughts you might keep in mind as you read through it with your book-loving friends.

The Ecologue
This is an unusual, “made-up” word because it introduces the narrator of the story. Why is Earth the narrator? If you took the perspective of “Earth” what would you be sensing and “thinking?” Have you read about “tectonic drift” and the theories of human migration since we humans arose? How does it make you think differently about our own history?

Part One: Valentin
Why does Valentin leave home to go to America? What has been your journey in life? What places do you feel very attached to and what has drawn you away from these roots? Why?

Clayton, Marie, and Lanier are three very different people who have been drawn together by their studies of ecology, but they also have developed a complicated friendship. What seems to be the glue of this friendship? Which character is closest to your experience and which is, as Lanier says, most “foreign?”

All through the book you will find yourself looking for the connections between the historical and contemporary events and figures. Which are most significant for you? Where do they lead you as you reflect on these stories?

If you are not familiar with Cherokee history, you can begin with James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (many editions), and Robert Conley, The Cherokee Nation: A History (Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 2005).

Part Two: Grace
Jakob struggles in the clash between industrial civilization and the farm and craft world attached to land and its products. How does this find tension find expression in your own life? What are you doing to re-establish the balance that Jakob’s family seeks? How much risk will you take to achieve this balance?

What makes Grace so unusual? What creates the bond between her and Thomas Halstead, who was in fact a historical person?

Red clay has deeply symbolic meanings for many cultures. What are the meanings and connections it has in these stories?

Clayton gets in trouble because of his single-minded pursuit of his “seeing.” How is he like and unlike the Luddites? What is Thomas Timberlake trying to accomplish with him?

If you don’t know much about South African history, a good place to start is Herman Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga, New History of South Africa (Tafelberg, 2007) or Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story (Reader’s Digest Association, 1995) and Allistar Sparks’s works, beginning with The Mind of South Africa (Knopf, 1990).

Part III: Tembinkosi
Very few of us have experienced Thembinkosi’s (pron: Tembee-en-kosee) wrenching experiences. What is it that keeps her going? What special capacities does she have in spite of her young age? What is the role and meaning of the mirror? When she speaks to Unkulunkulu and Umhlabati (pron: Umshlabati) can you feel some understanding of these powers to which she is devoted?

Lady Anne Barnard was a real and fascinating historical figure. What meaning does she have for Thembinkosi? Why is she so devoted to her?

What is the significance of Thembi’s mirror?

We now know much, much more about slavery and the horrific slave trade. What aspects strike you most vividly about the way Thembinkosi and her friends experience it?

What drives and shapes the attraction between Marie and Lanier and Marie and Clayton? How do their memories and their hopes differ? Why?

Among the many fine books about South African history the ones most pertinent to this period and region are Noel Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (London: Pimlico, 1992) and Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (London: Pimlico, 1965).

For a recent inquiry into Afrikaner history see Herman Gillomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg; Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2003). For many elements in Thembinkosi’s culture see Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, Indaba, My Children (Grove Press, [1964]).

Part IV: Red Clay
Many volumes have been written about the removal of the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears,” but very little about the equally vicious removal of the other four “civilized tribes” in the Southeast. For an introduction to their story see Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (University of Oklahoma Press, 1934). For the basic history of Cherokee removal see Trail of Tears: Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, John Ehle (Doubleday, 1988).

European settlers and traditional Cherokee had different relationships with the land. What does this have to do with the conflicts between them?

Many people do not know that some Cherokee, especially mixed-ancestry Cherokee, owned slaves. How does this awareness change your images of settlers and Native Americans?

Water is as important an image as land in these stories. It arouses both fear and longing. How does it shape people’s actions, especially in this part?

Christian missionaries play an important role here. In fact, the American Board of Foreign Missions had missionaries on the Trail of Tears as well as with the Dutch farmers at the Battle of Blood River. What do you make of this connection and the various roles played by missionaries in the fateful encounter of settlers and indigenous peoples?

Struggles against gambling and alcohol use recur often in these stories. Apart from the obvious problems associated with these practices, what are the reasons that lie behind Clayton’s opposition to them?

Part V: Blood River
The “Great Trek” was both a kind of “self-removal” of Dutch farmers from British control, and also a part of removal (today we would say “ethnic cleansing”) of the Zulu, Xhosa and other peoples from their traditional lands. In what way have these historic events shaped your own life? We can’t turn back the clock, but what would you do when confronted with the challenge of reconciliation with your ancestors’ antagonists?

What underlies the peculiar relation between Grace and Jakobus? Why is he so loyal to her in the midst of such violence?
The Battle of Blood River plays a deeply mythic and symbolic role in South African culture and history. Today there are two museums at the site — one Afrikaner and one Zulu.

What do you think are the differing perspectives that they offer on these events of 1838? For an introduction to this historical debate see Norman Etherington, The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854 (Pearson Education Limited, 2001).

Marie, known in South Africa as Marietjie, relives some deep memories in her family history when she returns for her gradnmother’s funeral. What do they tell you about her relationships with Lanier and Clayton? With her work?

Part VI: Promised Earth
A series of promises and covenants frame these stories. What are they? How does the mirror compact reflect them?

Earth closes the book with memories known only to the earth. What memories would you want to retrieve if you were an “earth talker” even more sensitive than Marie?

What has happened to the relationships among the three? What future paths do you think they will take in light of their commitments to the compact?

Has anything changed in the way you look at life because you have read this book? How would you share it with others in your group?

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