The time is November 1899 through February 1900; the place is Ladysmith, a small railroad town in British Natal near its border with the Boer Republics. The Boers have surprised the world with an initial series of Samson-and-Goliath victories over the British army and have now laid siege to Ladysmith. As they shell the town from surrounding hills, people die, disease is rampant, structures collapse, starvation looms, and yet the British muddle through with an improvised cricket match whenever possible.

The setting of this novel is historically accurate, and a number of historical figures appear as characters; for example, the Boers arrest a young reporter named Winston Churchill as he struggles to reach the besieged town, and an Indian lawyer-turned-medical volunteer named Mohandas K. Gandhi becomes more and more committed to his philosophy of active nonviolence.

The core of the novel is a fictionalized version of a love story that the author found in the letters of his great-grandfather, who was a British soldier at Ladysmith. Bella, the Irish hotelkeeper’s daughter, falls in love, first, with a British soldier; and later with a Portuguese barber, thus defying convention and rebelling against her father. The unlikely couple escapes in a balloon.


This is a novel about conspiracy, trust, and treachery against a background of large-scale economic and political forces. Access to the Boer Republics’ gold mines and diamond mines is the name of the game. The issue of colonialism jumps to the fore. Ladysmith puts British colonialism in Africa into a global context by beginning the novel some twenty years before the siege, when Kiernan, the future hotelkeeper, escapes arrest for his revolutionary activities in Ireland; and ending with a section called "The Monologues of the Dead," in which some of the characters speak about subsequent events, including Churchill’s disdain for Gandhi and his opposition to Indian independence.

Black Africans also have central roles in Ladysmith, especially a Zulu family that consists of Muhle; his wife, Nandi; and their son, Wellington. The Boers expel them from the mines in the Transvaal and are driving them home to Natal when they become separated as a result of a Boer raid. Muhle remains outside Ladysmith and is conscripted to carry guns for the Boer army, whereas his wife and son reach the town. At the risk of his own life, Wellington carries messages between the two sides, thus symbolizing the double vulnerability of Africans caught in the middle of the white man’s wars.



Place Published

New York



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