Aug 18, 11
Read in March, 2008
No, this is not the Linda Lovelace biography. (Oops, sorry...bad joke.) Rather, "Swallow" is yet another fine piece of adventure fantasy from the so-called "father of lost-race fiction," H. Rider Haggard. In addition to some 14 novels depicting the adventures of hunter Allan Quatermain, Haggard penned some dozen or so other books that were set in the wilds of Africa. "Swallow," his 22nd novel, was written in 1896, but did not see publication until January 1899. It is a somewhat unique book in the Haggard canon, being narrated, as it is, by an old Boer woman, the Vrouw Botmar, who is anything but sympathetic to the cause of British imperialism. She tells her story of the Great Trek of 1836, and all the many incidents surrounding it. And what a tale this is indeed! Truth to tell, it is primarily a love story. It seems that Vrouw Botmar's daughter, Suzanne, had been kidnapped on her wedding day by Swart Piet, as insane and cunningly nasty a villain as any that Haggard ever dreamed up. A half breed who consorts with native witch doctors, Piet is as dark a character as his name suggests. Suzanne's husband, the English castaway Ralph Kenzie, spends years trying to recover his lost bride, who is known to the natives as the eponymous Swallow. Fortunately for young Suzanne, she is accompanied through much of her travails by yet another of Haggard's remarkable female characters, Sihamba Ngenyanga, a diminutive witch doctoress who owes her life to Suzanne and has sworn lifelong fidelity to her. The two women wind up seeking refuge at Sihamba's old native village, perched atop a mountain (near what I infer to be modern-day northern Lesotho). A good thing, too, when the Zulus go on the warpath and besiege the town...
Haggard doesn't seem to have any agenda in "Swallow" other than telling a thrilling tale of action and romance, with some mystical elements thrown into the mix and some historical backdrop to add authenticity, and God bless him for it. No deep ideas are propounded in this novel, but what a pageturner it is! The book's villain, Swart Piet, is at least as mad as "The Spirit of Bambatse"'s Jacob Meyer, more coldhearted than "Jess"'s Frank Muller and more lust-crazed than "Marie"'s Hernando Pereira, three of Haggard's other great villains. Strangely enough, as in some other Haggard titles, such as "The Spirit of Bambatse," "Stella Fregelius" and "Mr. Meeson's Will," a shipwreck plays a large part in the development of the story here, delivering, as it does, Ralph Kenzie to the Botmar family. Haggard loved throwing supernatural/mystical elements into even his most realistic fictions, and "Swallow" is no exception. Here, the separated Ralph and Suzanne are capable of communicating through their dreams, which they do, to their salvation, in more than one instance during the course of the book. The tale also features one of the most heroic horses that I have ever read of, a nameless roan that saves the day on at least three occasions, and whose ultimate fate actually had me getting a little misty eyed. Besides being a marvelously moving and entertaining tale, "Swallow" also turns out to be something of a lesson in history, teaching us about a period of southern Africa that I daresay many modern readers are unfamiliar with. We also learn something of Boer life, as well. Who, for example, knew that a poultice of cabbage leaves is good for a horse's swollen legs?
Anyway, this really is a book with a little something for everyone, and was very well received when it first appeared in print. "The Charleston News" called it "a remarkable romance"; the "Chicago Tribune" pronounced it "utterly engrossing"; the New Orleans "Picayune" thought it "a thrilling tale, brimming over with adventure"; the "Milwaukee Sentinel" felt it was "a thrilling and unusual story," and even better than "She" (I'm not sure that I agree with that last part!); and "The Philadelphia Press" said that "it is questionable if the author has ever produced a story in all respects better than this." Well, I would disagree with that last blurb, too--"Nada the Lily" is, I feel, Haggard's most remarkable African romance--but the point is that "Swallow" really is a novel that will please just about any reader. I more than highly recommend it.