The Covenant is an epic novel that attempts to tell the story of southern Africa from prehistory to the present time. The author accomplishes this by basing his narrative both upon history and upon the lives and experiences of three families: the van Doorns, the Saltwoods, and the Nxumalos. These families, representing three major cultural forces, serve to illuminate events that have shaped contemporary South Africa; they also do much to explain various attitudes and policies arousing widespread controversy today. Members of these fictional families interact with notable historical personages; and various other groups—the bushmen, the Huguenots, the Portuguese, the Indians, the Chinese, the Hottentots, and those unfortunates known as the Coloured—are examined as well.
This is not to say that The Covenant is an entirely satisfactory or well rounded exposition of South African life and history. It is primarily an account of the Dutch, and particularly of those who became successively the Boers, the trekboers, the voortrekkers, and finally the Afrikaners—whose fundamentalist convictions provide a title for the novel. The English, as represented by the Saltwoods, and the Xhosa, as represented by the Nxumalo line, are seen primarily as they impinge upon these stubborn and independent people. Other ethnic and national groups are introduced in similar fashion.
James A. Michener, who has become a leading writer of the epic historical novel, has been frequently criticized for inadequate or sketchy characterization. This novel is no exception; although many of the portraits are arresting, and some of the characters are memorable, what the reader learns of them is largely anecdotal and none is developed to any great depth. In defense of this sacrifice of character to narrative, it should be remembered that this is a choice the historical novelist must face. He may examine one or more people in the context of one significant event or of one circumscribed period, and within this framework probe lives and personalities on many levels. If he wishes to enlarge the stage, as Michener prefers to do, then the limitations of space and of patience on the part of his readers become increasingly critical: character development must be subordinated to the story. This choice is not without its dangers, for it can be most frustrating to the reader. Readers are just beginning to know a character when they are shunted to another generation and must begin afresh. Genealogical tables have been provided as an appendix to the novel, and these are often helpful; nevertheless, as generation succeeds generation, each character recedes in turn and becomes increasingly confused with others who have already gone before.
The practitioner of the epic novel is faced with a further challenge. It is obvious that even a lengthy novel cannot include all aspects and events of the period covered. A selective process must therefore be adopted, and much is accordingly passed over. Certain omissions in The Covenant can be attributed to these constraints, others to Michener’s concentration upon the Boers. Some are nevertheless disturbing; any reader of this book would be well advised to consult an outline of South African history beforehand if misconceptions are to be avoided.
One significant and perhaps unfortunate omission concerns the Zulu nation. The personalities and events leading up to the Battle of Blood River in 1838 are brilliantly covered and the reader is given adequate portraits of Mzilikaze, Chaka, and Dingane; yet, an impression remains that after Dingane’s defeat, the Zulus were no longer a vital factor in the struggle for southern Africa. Michener ignores their resurgence under another great leader, Cetewayo (whose name does not appear in The Covenant), and mentions only casually their final defeat by the British in 1879.
The diamond fields are another curious omission. The first South African diamonds were discovered in 1867; the great mine at Kimberley in 1871; the Premier, near Pretoria, in 1902. The rush and the enormous activity that followed are largely ignored. Not until the final section of the novel, an ironic chapter in which the van Doorns and the Saltwoods finally achieve a working partnership, do diamonds really enter the story.
Another difficulty facing the novelist who essays a novel so all-encompassing is the problem of research. Clearly, a great deal of background must be assimilated, and Michener is a meticulous researcher. Even so, there are perhaps details that cannot realistically be studied in depth. It is also generally characteristic of novelists that they seldom bother to understand fully the tools their characters employ. The presence of a revolver in Richard Saltwood’s cabin is most unlikely, and would have been unusual enough to deserve special comment, although a few flintlock revolvers did exist in 1820. Michener notes that during the Boer War (1899-1901), the Boer commandos were armed with Mausers, and indeed many of...
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