A year after Trevor’s grandparents were first married, the government seized their homes and forced them to relocate to Soweto with tens of thousands of other Black South Africans. Soon after, the two divorced.
As a young girl, their daughter Patricia is already stubborn, single-minded, and unconventional. She struggles to get along with her mother but adores her volatile, charismatic father, often joining him on his manic, drunken adventures through the township. At nine, she tells them both that she wants to go live with her father. He acquiesces but then sends her to live with his sister instead in Transkei, the Xhosa homeland.
Though the homelands are ostensibly designated by the apartheid government to be semi-sovereign “free” lands for the Black people of South Africa at this time, the arrangement has not lived up to its promise: The homelands comprise just thirteen percent of the region’s land, with minimal resources, agricultural potential, or infrastructure.
In Patricia’s case, spending her youth with her aunt in the homelands means a life of extreme scarcity. As one of fourteen children in the house, she is often forced to fight the others for sustenance. In times of extreme desperation, she has to get creative—if nearby farmers throw scraps to their pigs, she takes them for herself. When there is nothing to take from the pigs, she mixes river clay with water and drinks it like milk.
When she turns twenty-one and her aunt falls ill, she returns to Soweto and enrolls in secretarial courses. Before long, she realizes that her life in the township is still too restrictive for her and she flees to pursue a secret life in the city. Soon, she has a son of her own—Trevor—and focuses all her maternal energy on raising him to have the choices she did not.
As apartheid ends and its restrictions begin to lift, Patricia moves the two of them to a bigger apartment in new neighborhood. Resources are scant, but she makes the most of what they have to make their life together enriching and adventurous—she takes him to every free park in town, teaches him to drive at just six, and always finds money for books.
Trevor is a spirited, inquisitive, mischievous child, requiring constant punishment at home and at school. His relationship with Patricia is often one of begrudgingly respectful nemeses: Her commitment to catching him as he misbehaves is matched only by his dedication to evading her, and soon they begin writing each other formal letters as their primary method of argument.
When Trevor is around six, Patricia begins dating a man named Abel who lives in a white family’s garage. The white family’s maid also lives on the premises, and Trevor and her son play whenever he and Patricia visit. On one such occasion, Trevor shows the maid’s son how to use a magnifying glass to focus the sunlight in order to burn words into scraps of wood.
When the boys abandon the magnifying glass to go have a snack, they return to an unfortunate surprise: the sunlight caught the lens at just the right angle, and the mattress it was resting on has caught fire. Before long, the fire has spread to the main house and the entire property is destroyed.
Abel, furious about the fire, moves in with Patricia and Trevor after the loss of his home.
In chapter 5, the author traces his own family history as a way of demonstrating another of the mechanisms of oppression used by the apartheid government.
When his grandparents—and tens of thousands of other Black...
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South Africans—had their homes seized from them shortly after they were first married, they were forcibly relocated to Soweto, one of the country’s newly-formed “townships.” Townships are effectively ghettos designed to contain the country’s Black populations who choose not to lead agrarian lives in the designated rural “homelands.” With its few exits, Noah notes, Soweto in particular is a township virtually designed to be bombed someday.
This chapter also offers some background on Patricia’s life. Her rebellion against authority begins early, but so does her resourcefulness—she spends her teens in the homelands under incredibly difficult circumstances, and she is forced to be creative just to survive. This presages her resourcefulness later on in the narrative; after spending her teen years drinking clay to feel full, feeding her son with butcher scraps is something of an improvement.
In chapter 6, Trevor’s mischief comes to a point in a way that, for the first time, has tangible consequences in both the short and long term. The house burns down, which is itself an extremely dramatic occurrence, but it might be argued that Abel’s coming to live with Trevor and Patricia is the consequence that truly impacts his life.