“Upturned Earth” is set in South Africa’s Namaqualand in the winter of 1886. A young man, William Hull, travels from Cape Town to Springbokfontein to take up his position of magistrate. It’s not just his seasickness that colours his view of the town, mostly black with slag, and slums where the miners sleep. Most miners are on their own, some with families elsewhere, but some have wives and children who also work at the Okiep mine owned by the Cape Copper Mining Company (CCMC). Townsend, the mine’s superintendent, tells Hull he will do as he’s told. Over a dinner, rich with imported food, Hull meets Townsend’s two daughters. One well-mannered who values appearances and manages to put fashion ahead of function at a funeral where she fails to notice how inappropriate her costume is. Her sister, the other daughter, is a young widow with a son who chooses to dress in mourning even though her elderly husband’s death was not unexpected and it was not a marriage based on love.
Hull settles into the magistrate’s residence where the jailer inserts himself as a valet, butler and cook to Hull. The jailer takes Hull on a tour of the jail cells. Hull suspects he’s not been shown everything, but youth and naivety prevent him from insisting on seeing all. The cases before Hull are mainly concerned with drunken brawls and petty theft. Hull also meets the local Dr Fox who is paid by the Cape Copper Mining Company to attend injured miners as well as inspect the prisoners. Dr Fox’s reports on the prisoners’ well-being lead Hull to think he was being over-suspicious on the tour of the jail cells. In his spare time, Hull starts cataloguing and collecting specimens of local plants, insects and small animals such as frogs. His position separates him from the local mining community who view him as being in the pocket of the CCMC.
In parallel to Hull’s journey, Molefi Noki, travels back to Okiep from his village in the Idutywa Reserve, leaving behind his heavily pregnant wife. He joins the other miners, a mix of nationalities: white men, who have emigrated, the original black population and the Baster, descendants of children of Dutch men and native women, led by a preacher, Adam Waterboer. Noki searches for his brother, Anele, who he discovers has been jailed after a drunken brawl by Hull’s predecessor. Noki, not trusting a magistrate in CCMC’s pay, tries to bribe another prisoner for news of Anele, but the jailer is alerted to the disturbance and Noki has to leave.
When there’s a partial collapse in one of the mining tunnels, Noki is part of a group instructed to dig the collapsed shaft out. When the miners point out that the collapse happened because of insufficient supports, they are instructed to continue anyway. The supports have been further weakened by days of non-stop rain which has left some of the tunnels water-logged. The miners’ discontent and weakened shaft supports set in motion an avalanche of events that bring the miners into conflict with the CCMC with devastating, tragic consequences.
In the confusion of the conflict, Hull finally inspects the whole jail and discovers that while white prisoners have been treated reasonably, black prisoners have been maltreated. He arranges for the maltreated prisoners to be taken to the hospital, a dilapidated building run by a matron who pulls in miners’ wives to assist when needed, under guard and sacks the jailer. For once, Hull doesn’t back down in the face of vicious protest. In interviewing the maltreated prisoners, Hull discovers what happened to Noki’s brother Anele and that the jailer had been working in collusion with Townsend. Hull rages against his naivety and leaves the magistrate’s residence, but not the post. He faces a choice, does he stay and take on the might of the CCMC or does he run away?
Karen Jennings has extensively researched the historical details and successfully brings to life the contrasts between the poverty of the miners and wealth of mine owners, the uneasy atmosphere in the mining town of shacks where men group in tribes and there’s little to do but work and drink. Most of the men are separated from family support networks and came to mine either because they needed to support distant families or because no other work was available. The CCMC did exist, some of the characters in “Upturned Earth” are based on historical records and accounts but the events are fictional.
The characters are credible. Noki is driven to support his family, which limits his ability to knock back against the conditions he works under. His fellow miners are trapped in similar circumstances. Townsend, cuts costs and safety to maximise profits for his luxury lifestyle, using his wealth to control and exploit others. His younger daughter doesn’t question her luxuries and believes herself to be acting with charity when she donates food parcels to miners who only have one set of ragged clothes and have to cook on damp firewood. The widowed daughter knows her father’s working practices are unsafe, which led her to escape into marriage but her husband’s death has forced her back into a family she regards as a trap. Hull’s naivety initially feels like a plot device: his illness and malnutrition from violent seasickness would have been enough for him not to ask too many questions or make a full inspection of the jail on his arrival. However, his awakening and rage at the situation he blindly allowed himself to be caught in, are both credible and create a moral struggle, which brings about a complete change in attitude.
“Upturned Earth” brings to life the history of a miners’ conflict in 1886, filling in the characters and details from historical documents and creating credible fictional characters to produce a satisfying story. Karen Jennings shows characters struggling to overcome their circumstances. Although “Upturned Earth” is a historical novel, its concerns and themes of struggles against poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, have contemporary relevance.