American public schools don’t really focus on the history of Africa, so my knowledge of South African history is very limited. I knew small bits about recent events and apartheid, but beyond that I knew nothing. The summary of The Lost History of Stars really grabbed me because I’m always looking to learn more about unknown histories (well, unknown to me).
At the turn of the 20th century (and forty years before apartheid started), South Africa was in the midst of war, with the British Empire trying to take land away from the Boer, Dutch Afrikaners. The book doesn’t follow the Second Anglo-Boer war, but rather the women and children who were left behind and sent to concentration camps. In these camps, twenty-two thousand children died.
In this living hell, Lettie Venter, a fourteen year old girl, is trying to grab ahold of any crumb of hope. As the men in her family, including her beloved grandfather, are fighting against the British, Lettie is also facing a war against time. Starvation, illness, and death become a horrible new normal.
The anchor of the novel (and for me the best part) was the protagonist, Lettie Venter. The little girl at the beginning of the story changes to a complex young woman. Before the concentration camp, Lettie’s worldview was rigid, seeing the world through ‘black and white’ lenses. This point of view is ingrained deeply by her family and their religious upbringing.
There are already a couple of women in Lettie’s life who start to challenge her perspective, but their words don’t sink in until she faces hell on earth.
The novel starts with Lettie, along with her mother and two younger siblings, being taken by the British and moved to a ‘refugee camp’ after said British burn down their house. The book follows their year and half in the concentration camp, as Lettie finds solace from writing, reading, and new friends.
The little pleasures Lettie have are soon stripped away, and all she’s left with is core of who is she is, where she must draw strength. I’m usually not a fan of ‘coming-of-age’ stories, but I think Boling did a great job balancing the history and Lettie’s story.
I also have to warn readers, this is a rough read, especially in regards to the death of children, and the slow erosion of human beings is hard to witness.
I know many people do not like heartbreaking stories, but I think facing dark history, the ugly side of humanity, is needed to not repeat our mistakes. Lettie realized that war punishes both sides, and that not every single person on the enemy’s side is evil. That humanity belongs to everyone, not just those you deem worthy.
Release date: June 6th, 2017
**I want to thank NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced copy in exchange for a honest review.**