Time transforms memory. Like a painting, it is sensitive to change and exposure, and the natural aging process...It has always saddened me that I have not been able to share with my husband and children what was an exotic childhood in a faraway country more than half a century in the past.
Rachel Odhner Longstaff transforms these regrets into her memoir, In the Shadow of the Dragon's Back, recalling her family's life in South Africa from the beginning of Apartheid in 1948 to their return to the United States in 1960.
When Rachel moves to Durban, South Africa with her parents, two brothers, and three sisters, she is only three years old. Her father is a Swedenborgian minister, sent by the church to begin a theological school for African ministers and serve as pastor to the European (or "white") people of Durban. Longstaff's detailed descriptions of her family's 100-year-old home with its high ceilings and big windows, Sunday dinners, trips to the English, Indian and Native markets, and vacations in the Drakensberg evoke many happy childhood memories. Her deep affection for this place is obvious as she opens up the world of African landscapes and wildlife for the reader. The mountains and woods of "the Berg" hold special poignant memories for Rachel and we share her heartfelt disappointment when Rachel returns thirty years later to find it changed.
Juxtaposed with these memories is the reality of Apartheid and a certain guilt that she didn't comprehend the injustice that existed at that time. "Born out of a feeling that I was somehow to blame for enjoying a happy, sunny childhood while others living in the same time and place were suffering, I have reached into my past to find these uneven parallels." This is the true purpose of the book—to reconcile her feelings and find some truth or meaning beyond the injustice.
Longstaff contrasts her life with the racism of Apartheid by strategically placing excerpts from Apartheid legislation and quotes from South African journals throughout the book, creating a striking picture of discriminatory and ambiguous policies. For example,
A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white—and not generally accepted as Coloured—or who is generally accepted as White—and is not obviously Non-White, provided that a person shall not be classified as a White person if one of his natural parents has been classified as a Coloured person or a Bantu...
Although Longstaff compares Apartheid with racism in the United States only sporadically, readers will certainly recognize similarities. The book is filled with telling black and white photos. Unfortunately, however, there are no maps to help orient the reader to this vast country, and the book provides only a very limited history of the Dutch and English in South Africa to explain the birth of Apartheid.
Though Longstaff grows up in a foreign country, it is easy to identify with her experiences and feelings toward the world around her. Profoundly affected by the injustices of Apartheid, she is confused by society's lack of response toward a people and place she and her family have grown to love. In the Shadow of the Dragon's Back is an engaging cultural portrait of Apartheid as seen through the eyes of a young girl, as well as a window into South Africa at a defining time in its history.
Rachel Odhner Longstaff grew up in Durban, South Africa, where her family lived for twelve years. She attended Northwestern University, graduating with a BA in English and later studied Library and Information Science at Drexel University. She worked as an academic librarian for about twenty years, first at the Swedenborg Library in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, and later at Saint Leo University in Florida. Now retired, she enjoys writing, cycling, gardening, and reading.
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