The Cedarville Shop and the Wheelbarrow Swap
Boipelo and Potso (age 12) are inseparable best friends who live in Cedarville, a small village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province near the mountain for which it is named and close to neighboring KwaZuluNatal Province and the tiny independent country of Lesotho. It has a library, a school, one shop selling general supplies, and a bottle (liquor) store, but no medical clinic, proper grocery store, or businesses that offer employment to the town’s residents. Boi’s father has no steady job since the cheese factory in town closed, and they live on his grandmother’s modest government stipend for the elderly. (Boi’s mother died during his childbirth.) This setting is the context and stimulus for the story’s main problem: how the two friends can improve their living situation. Boi reads a story in a magazine about a man in Canada who devised a scheme to acquire a large house through a series of trades that started with a simple red paperclip and determines to try something similar. The pair teams up to make a plan (creating a clay cow to be traded for anything of greater value and so on to the ultimate goal of securing a good house), and in the process, they experience challenges and gain insights about friendship.
This novel for a middle grade audience has a similar tone as the author’s first title, Small Mercies (2020): it presents the poverty faced by Cedarville’s residents realistically but uncondescendingly. Introductory background information—regarding apartheid, government housing and support, and languages—helps readers unfamiliar with South Africa’s history and current circumstances better understand what their life is like. Details about the location/setting and the prevalence of diseases like AIDS/HIV and TB are included as appropriate to the story. This specific context leads to a consideration of why life sometimes is unfair and good things don’t always work out even for people who strive to improve their lives. However, the narrative is not primarily about those issues, but rather depicts themes such as the aforementioned friendship, overcoming self-doubt, pre-teen infatuation, kindness, empathy, and grace—all themes that may resonate widely with readers in this age group. Furthermore, while there are helpful and wise adults, the boys are problem-solvers and thus gain agency at a crucial time in their adolescent development.
Boi, the protagonist/narrator, is a fully rounded character, whose innate kindness and empathy are portrayed through such actions as aiding Potso when he injures his head in a fall (and thereby becoming fast friends from that moment) or trading a week’s worth of free taxi transport for a broken wheelbarrow with a woman whose sick child is in a hospital in another town. At the same time, when he helps an elderly neighbor, he hopes that the old man will put in a good word for Boi with Sesi, the girl on whom Boi has a crush. Boi’s friendship with Potso is jeopardized when Boi makes a trade without consulting Potso, asserts that their trading plan was his idea to begin with, and then can’t figure out how to rectify the damage to their friendship even after he realizes his mistake. Boi also alternates between self-doubt and feeling successful with his trading plan. Potso is another important character who balances Boi’s personality, Boi’s grandmother and father fulfill vital but supplementary roles, Sesi is unlike most other girls who “move in a big pack” (p. 141) and always seems “calm and certain” (p. 163), Mrs. Jafta (Sesi’s mother) is Boi’s capable teacher, Mrs. Viljoen (the shopkeeper) and Mr. Retief are secondary but essential white or mixed-race characters, and the three journalists who interview Boi present contrasting reporting styles. In keeping with the author’s overall empathetic tone, none of the townspeople are one-dimensional failures in spite of their poverty. For example, there’s Boi’s neighbor who “could not work harder than she was doing; but her life never improved” (p. 38), and Potso’s mother tried many plans to make money, “but none of her ideas worked” (p. 40).
Although the author is a white South African who lives in Hilton, a small town about 150 miles from Cedarville, she grew up in the Cedarville area and incorporates authentic details about the culture and customs of the primarily amaXhosa people who live there. Children are expected to show respect to all elders and to do their bidding; the village views everyone as family members; illness is not openly discussed; funerals are always held on Saturday afternoons and everyone attends; when something happens in the village, a crowd of curious children will quickly gather; the bottle store is where young men hang out who don’t have work; and circumcision is the right of passage from boyhood to manhood. In her thanks at the end, Krone is careful to acknowledge individuals who assisted with her research on the area and its language. She includes a glossary of terms but also provides brief translations in the story’s text, such as “magintsas” (gangsters) and when Boi’s father finally addresses him as “mntwan’am” (my child).
This novel is an engaging read with a satisfying ending that takes a different path than that of the Canadian man, whose story inspired Boi initially. Instead of that man’s individual success, Boi’s whole village comes together inspired by Boi’s example after Boi believes that he has made a mess of everything. The success is collective and all benefit. Otherwise, the plot develops fairly predictably with touches of humor and worthwhile themes. Overarching all others, the theme of grace ties everything together: when all seems an impossible knot, if one keeps looking and persevering, the secret to untangling might click into view—a timely message for our world.
Barbara A. Lehman, Ed. D.
Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University
Published in Africa Access Review (May 23, 2022)
Copyright 2022 Africa Access