Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713
Valley Song opens with The Author, a white man in his sixties representing Fugard himself, showing the audience a handful of ‘‘genuine Karoo pumpkin seeds,’’ describing the beauty and richness of the land in the Sneeuberg Mountains of South Africa's great Karoo region, and inviting the onlookers to imagine Abraam Jonkers, a ‘‘coloured’’ (mixed-race) tenant farmer now in his seventies, planting the seeds in the fresh spring earth just after a rain. The images in The Author's opening monologue—seeds, earth, rain, mountains, and valleys—are important not only to the setting of Valley Song, but to the personalities of the characters and the larger themes at work in the play.
As The Author talks, he turns into Abraam Jonkers, known to everyone in the village of Nieu-Bethesda as ‘‘old Buks.’’ Old Buks has lived in the village his entire life, working as a tenant farmer on the same piece of land his father worked on when he was a boy. While the land has been owned by a white family, the Landmans, for generations, Abraam Jonkers and his family have only been allowed to live on the edge of it and farm a few acres. Old Buks has raised the crops for the Landmans, and his wife, before she died, cleaned their house and scrubbed their floors. Now the Landmans are gone, and the property is for sale.
As Buks sings fragments of an old song he once knew and plants pumpkin seeds in the damp soil, his granddaughter, Veronica, arrives with his lunch. She is black, seventeen, filled with youthful energy and tender devotion toward her grandfather, whom she calls ‘‘Oupa.’’ As Veronica lays out their lunch—bread with jam and a thermos of tea—Buks tells her he is concerned about a white man who visited that morning looking to buy the house and property. Because Buks does not own the land on which he lives and farms, the owner could tell him to leave, a fate worse than death for the old man. Veronica does not want to see her Oupa displaced, but losing the land, to her, might mean opportunity instead of tragedy. She complains that nothing ever happens in the small valley village, and what she is really seeking now is ‘‘Adventure and Romance!’’
More than anything, Veronica wants to be a famous singer. She has a lovely natural voice, and constantly makes up songs to sing to entertain herself and old Buks. She sings him a song she made up that morning called ‘‘Railway Bus O Railway Bus,’’ which is about her desire to jump on a fast bus and travel the world, seeing all of the big cities and strange places she has only heard about. The song reminds old Buks of painful memories and prompts him to finally tell Veronica about her mother and her past.
Veronica's mother, Caroline, was Buks' only daughter. When she was still a young girl, she ran away to Johannesburg with her troublemaking boyfriend. A year went by before Buks and his wife, Betty, received a phone call from a hospital in the city. Caroline was quite sick, so Betty went to be with her. When she returned on the ‘‘railway bus’’ she brought Veronica, a newborn baby. Caroline had died. Old Buks and Betty raised Veronica, their granddaughter, as if she were their own child. Now Buks' life is changing. Betty died when Veronica was only a few years old, and now, it seems, Veronica wants to run away to the city like her mother did before her. To make matters worse, a white man is asking questions about his land, and he faces an uncertain future.
Later that night, Veronica sneaks off to the village. She is standing on an apple box, pretending she is on TV singing for thousands of people, when The Author steps out of the shadows and surprises her. After an initial fright, Veronica tells The Author about her fantasy of being a famous performer. He warns her about the danger of dreams that are impossible to achieve, but she insists that if people dream ‘‘properly’’ and believe hard enough, they can make a dream come true.
The next day Veronica and old Buks receive the news: the white man they have seen around town is going to buy the land on which they live and farm. Veronica suggests they fight against losing their home, perhaps by taking a petition to the government, but Buks is resigned to the situation. He is used to deferring to the white people who own most of the land, and plans to talk to the white man to convince him to let Buks and Veronica stay on to tend the land and clean his house, as their family has done for years.
Buks' suggestion leads to a major confrontation between him and his granddaughter. While Buks is perfectly content to live his few remaining years growing vegetables on the small patch of earth he calls home, with Veronica working as a servant for a new white boss, she has different ideas. She believes there are better opportunities available to her in the new South Africa, now that blacks have equal access to the jobs whites have and can live in the cities like anyone else. Buks, however, interprets Veronica's ambition as ingratitude and a rejection of all of the values he holds dear. For the first time in their lives, he is angry with her, and his anger brings her to tears.
The next Sunday, Buks catches The Author just before he leaves town to return to the city for awhile. He offers the white man a wheelbarrow full of vegetables, and pleads with him to let him stay on the land, and maybe to let his granddaughter keep his house clean. To The Author, who is looking to buy the land as a place to escape from the ‘‘make-believe world of theatre,’’ this gesture makes the sale. The character, really Fugard himself in disguise, tells the audience about his desire to get away from the ‘‘nonsense from actors and producers and critics,’’ and live for a while in the ‘‘real’’ world. He stops himself short, however, when he realizes the significance of the land to old Buks. Although The Author has the means to simply write out a check and pick up a title deed to the property, it is Buks and his family who have worked the soil and grown up with the land for at least two generations. It is only because of South Africa's terrible history of denying equality to its black citizens that Buks must now beg the white man for what may rightfully be his.
As The Author considers the guilt he is feeling, Veronica joins him, and reveals to the audience her hatred for the land the two men love so much. ‘‘It gives us food,’’ she says, ‘‘but it takes our lives.’’ She thinks of her beloved Oupa as a slave to the land, and is convinced it is fear of being trapped by the land that drove her mother away. Once again the Author tries to warn Veronica about the danger of dreaming too big, but she stubbornly resists him and insists, ‘‘You will never see me on my knees scrubbing a white man's floor.’’
Veronica and Buks' next confrontation arrives with the mail. Although Buks cannot read, he opened a letter Veronica received from a friend in Johannesburg and had a friend read it to him. From its contents, he learned that Veronica is planning to leave the valley and find work in the city so she can pursue her singing career. Faced with the letter, Veronica admits to the plan, and shows Buks some money she has saved by singing for white people on the street in the village. Buks calls her meager savings ‘‘Devil's money’’ and hurls it out into the field. That Sunday, Veronica will not sing in church. The joy in her voice has been crushed by old Buks' treatment of her dreams.
Months pass, and in the middle of winter, Veronica comes to her Oupa to tell him that he must let her go. Like the pumpkin seeds he plants and tends so carefully, she tells him she, too, has grown up. She explains to him that her singing is her life, and she must tend it the way old Buks tends his vegetables. He warns her that it is a bad world outside of their little valley, but she insists that he has helped to make her strong, and the time for her to leave is now. Finally, old Buks gives Veronica his blessing, and she leaves him with a song about the valley that she loves.
On her way out of town, Veronica encounters The Author for the last time. He admits that he understands the ambitions that are driving her onward and that he was only testing her resolve earlier when he questioned the seriousness of her dreams. Both of them, the author and the singer, are artists who answer to a mysterious higher calling. They both go where their dreams lead them. The Author, who is nearing the end of his life, is running out of dreams about the ‘‘Glorious Future,’’ and in a touching symbolic gesture, he tells Veronica, ‘‘The future belongs to you now.’’ Because The Author is actually Fugard, the playwright, the line has a deeper meaning. Fugard has spent his career on the stage ‘‘dreaming’’ about a brighter future for his country. Now, late in life, he is seeing some changes occur, but knows he will not be around to see them reach fruition. It will be up to new artists, black and white, to dream new dreams.
Veronica runs off to the city, leaving behind The Author and old Buks. To keep from ending the play with old Buks ‘‘slumped in defeat and misery,’’ however, The Author reaches out to him and entices him back to life in the only way he understands: through the land. The Author tells Buks about the new spring rain that fell the night before, and offers him a handful of pumpkin seeds so he can plant his field and draw new life from the earth once more.