Upturned Earth, a new novel by Karen Jennings, takes us to Namaqualand, the copper mining district of the Cape Colony during the winter of 1886.
We join William Hull on his journey from Cape Town, he is seasick throughout, to take up his position as magistrate which, he discovers, has been offered to him because no other man would take it.
Upon arrival in Okiep he is not impressed: ‘The bulk of the town – roads, hillocks, plains – was black with slag.’ Yet, he is determined is make it work: ‘He would be firm. Punishment would be meted out. The law would be laid down.’ Though he will soon learn that the CCMC – the Cape Copper Mining Company – is a law unto itself.
The Cape Copper Mining Company did exist, but the events described in Upturned Earth are fictional.
Next we are introduced to another protagonist, Molefi Noki, a miner, when he is on his way back from his village in the Idutywa Reserve situated in the Transkei Territory. This is his first visit in five years. After months of helping the villagers with planting and harvesting, he has to go back to job in the Okiep mine, and leave his heavily pregnant wife behind.
It is through these two contrasting figures Hull, seen as being in the pocket of the CCMC management, whether he likes it or not, and Noki clinging on to his job, that a gripping picture emerges of life in and around the copper mines.
The volatile relationship between the miners and management is presented in a delicate, engrossing way. Life may be hard down in the mines but acts of a caring human nature shine through.
Along the way we find out that the miners are not a homogeneous group, they’re made up of white folk having emigrated, the original black population, and the Baster, who are descendants from the bastard children of Dutch men and native women. This gives them a sense of pride, most apparent in their leader their leader, Kaptijn Adam Waterboer.
How does this diverse community copes with the calamities mining tends to inflict on its workforce? Karen’s sensitive account of daily life creates a riveting story that makes you root for Hull and Noki.
At the start of the story, our seasick magistrate Hull meets Mrs McBride, a much put-upon young widow, who tried her best to run away from the influence of the CCMC. How will their relation develop and will it lead to something that gives hope for the future?
Jennings makes you think about what’s good and bad, which side you should be on, something that is often not really such a clear-cut choice. She gives a voice to people who even in today’s society struggle to make themselves heard.
As Karen sums it up: at the very least Upturned Earth exists as a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present.
Upturned Earth is a vital novel championing the underdog. Let it take you on a journey.