A dry white season

by André Brink

Paper Book, 1979


Fiction. Literature. HTML: As startling and powerful as when first published more than two decades ago, Andr� Brink's classic novel, A Dry White Season, is an unflinching and unforgettable look at racial intolerance, the human condition, and the heavy price of morality. Ben Du Toit is a white schoolteacher in suburban Johannesburg in a dark time of intolerance and state-sanctioned apartheid. A simple, apolitical man, he believes in the essential fairness of the South African government and its policies&#8212until the sudden arrest and subsequent "suicide" of a black janitor from Du Toit's school. Haunted by new questions and desperate to believe that the man's death was a tragic accident, Du Toit undertakes an investigation into the terrible affair&#8212a quest for the truth that will have devastating consequences for the teacher and his family, as it draws him into a lethal morass of lies, corruption, and murder..… (more)



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LibraryThing member lit_chick
"Even if one sees injustice with his own eyes? Did you expect me to turn my head the other way? (144)

Set in 1970s South Africa, Apartheid in its prime, A Dry White Season is told from the point of view Ben Du Toit, a white high school teacher. Ben is outraged by the death of his friend, Gordon
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Ngubene, the black custodian at his school, who has died at the hands of the police under highly suspect circumstances. Gordon had been attempting to uncover the truth behind the death of his son, Jonathan, arrested following a riot in Soweto in which demonstrators had been fighting Apartheid. But the pursuit of truth in the current political landscape is dangerous, and eventually Gordon is taken into custody by the Special Branch, South Africa’s secret police. On his death, Ben’s sense of injustice is ignited, and he sets about a dogged investigation, which will cost him the love and regard of family, friends, and colleagues. Not surprisingly, it does not take long for his investigation to be labelled rebellion:

“Today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and given him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, a something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incites the pupils against me and cuts up the tires of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.” (237)

A Dry White Season is structured as a framing narrative. In the novel’s Foreward, Ben Du Toit is dead, and his friend is in process of organizing Ben’s work in order to tell his story. The remainder of the novel is narrated by Ben, speaking as though his friend has pieced his journals and writings together. Brink’s characters are wonderfully well-written, my favourite of whom is Stanley, the larger-than-life black driver from Soweto, who will befriend Ben.

Why I Read This Now: Brink caught my attention with his more recent novel, Philida, longlisted for the Booker Prize; and which I thoroughly enjoyed. A Dry White Season also proved to be an excellent read.

Recommended: Highly! For readers who enjoy historical fiction and are interested in South Africa, particularly its Apartheid era.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon. When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide. He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and
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corruption emerges. Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted. His family can't understand his passion for justice. Here's Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:
"They killed Gordon," he said. "First they killed Jonathan, then him. How can they get away with it?"

"If they'd been guilty the court would have said so. I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon's death, Ben. But it's no use dwelling on it." She pressed his hand more urgently. "It's all over and done with now. You're home again. Now you can settle down like before." (p. 137)

But Ben can't settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences. He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues. The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:

The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies. ... It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn't mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn't been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn't behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been. (p. 162)

André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs. But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own. In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.
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LibraryThing member cushlareads
**some spoilers, about what you'd find on the back of the book. **

A Dry White Season is not a fluffy book, so don't pick it up unless you are in the mood for some disturbing content. I lay awake in the middle of the night wondering if I'd have been like the main character's wife. It's that kind of
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Brink, who's an Afrikaner, wrote A Dry White Season in 1979. It was banned by the South African government and you'll see why within the first chapter.

Ben du Toit is an Afrikaner living a normal white middle-class life - he teaches history and geography, has a wife who feels she deserved a more ambitious go getting-husband, and has 3 kids - two grown-up daughters and a teenage son. He's pretty comfortable about the society he lives in, and has seldom felt the need to rock the boat. But from the start of the book you can see that he's generous and has a stubborn streak, and because of the book's structure you know from the first page how the story will end. The school cleaner, Gordon Ngubene, can't afford the school fees for his son Jonathan, so Ben pays them and the two men becomne friends. Jonathan ends up in jail in one of the Soweto riots, then gets killed while he's in jail. Gordon sets out to find out what happened, and Ben tries to help. He's sure that the justice system will do its job. His life unwinds from there, as his belief system first gets threatened then destroyed.

Brink uses a clever structure for the book. It starts off with a chapter from an old school friend of Ben's, who explains how they had lost touch till recently, till Ben calls him to meet him secretly. Brink can then switch from the school friend's narrative to Ben's, to file reports and court documents, so that the whole story feels very immediate.

The characters are really well described, even the minor ones, so you get a sweeping picture of attitudes to apartheid and to changing the system. Susan, Ben's wife, is horrified when black people start coming to their house. And the Afrikaner church comes out of it looking pretty terrible. The liberal Afrikaner movement looks bad in hindsight for wanting to change the system from within, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
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LibraryThing member hayesstw
Tells it like it was.

If ever one is in danger of forgetting what life was like in apartheid South Africa, this is the book to read. The description, the setting, the characters are all absolutely authentic.
LibraryThing member phyllis.shepherd
The story of Ben DuToit, a white teacher in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has reached mature adulthood without questioning the separation and inequality of the races. But when discrimination and violence affect a black family he has known for years, he naively believes that he can take up their
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cause and set things right. As he becomes more entangled in the system he is made painfully aware of the need for change. The story details his almost unwitting metamorphose into activist, reviled by family, friends, and colleagues, and pursued by the police.
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LibraryThing member jmaloney17
Excellent book. I highly recommend it. About a white afrikaaner man trying to help a black family get some justice in 1960s (?) South Africa. He runs across all kinds of problems from the people in Soweto, who have a justifiably difficult time trusting whites; and from the National Party
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(Afrikaaner) Security Police who control the land and people with threats and violence.
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LibraryThing member christinegrabowski
A great book for book club with a lot of points to discuss about racism, apartheid and South Africa in the 1970s. Explores a white man's experience in South Africa when he begins to dig into what really happened to a black man he knew who supposedly committed suicide when in jail for questioning
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his own son's mysterious death. This book was banned in south africa when it was originally published in the late 70's and was't released there until the 1990s.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
I liked this book but also found it not that compelling at times.

I am old enough to remember apartheid and segregation. I have never visited South Africa. I often wonder what it would be like to visit South Africa. It seems that both the US and South Africa struggled more than other countries in
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giving up the mistreatment of a person based on their color and that struggle caused serious problems for the countries.

Legacy/Achievement: This is not the only book about apartheid or about South Africa. He is not that celebrated author though did win some well known prizes for his writing. Gordimer born 1923, Brink 1935 and Coetzee 1940. All are award winning writers. Alan Paton's work was probably the first. So really Brink did not offer much as far as Legacy.

Plot: this is a story told by episolary method. Ben sends all his notes and data to his friend who sorts through it and organizes it and we the reader share in this process so we know the ending and we share in the unfolding of the events.

Characterization: I liked Ben but I also thought he might be a fool. It did seem like while he stood for something admiral, he was really spitting in the wind. I can't feel that anything he did really helped or hindered the cause. He was one man, Gordon and Jonathan were just individuals. I did not like Ben's wife. She was not a sympathetic character and her character does make the infidelity understandable. I liked Ben's son. Seemed like a good kid. His daughters really were not so much. I really liked Melanie's father.

Readability: at times it read okay but it wasn't compelling. I had no trouble putting it down and reading something else.

Style: I think I read that Brink was one of the first few authors to challenge the restrictions of writing sexual content. I did not find this a necessary part of the book. I was okay with Ben and Melanie's attraction to each other but not with the details of the actual sex. How did whoever took the picture, know that the spare bedroom would be used. I didn't find this part of the story believable. Ben had not been in the habit of staying at Melanie's home.
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LibraryThing member tstan
Very timely read about Apartheid, and the coverup of a man's death while in police custody. Well-written, and, though not an easy subject, an easy to follow story that is very affecting.
This would be a great book group read, though it could easily spark some volatile discussion.
LibraryThing member thorold
Ben du Toit thinks of himself as an ordinary Afrikaner with no particular interest in politics, a simple Johannesburg schoolteacher. But he's suddenly forced to confront his illusions about the kind of country he's living in when his black friend Gordon dies in police custody, having been arrested
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for nothing more than trying to find out what happened to his teenage son, killed in the aftermath of the Soweto school protests. Ben's tentative attempts to get information from the police and then to help Gordon's widow with the inquest soon make him realise that the authorities have something to hide, reinforcing his stubborn wish to find out what really happened and make sure it doesn't happen again. And of course the police are soon making sure that Ben himself understands how much power they have, when nasty things start happening to him and the people around him.

In the end, of course, he can't hope to win, and he also knows only too well that he can't hope to stop being a privileged white person, but as a friend tells him, there are two kinds of madness one should guard against: One is the belief that we can do everything. Another is the belief that we can do nothing. He has to go on and fail so that it will be a little bit easier for the next person to fail less badly. And eventually the system will be overcome.

Brink sticks to a fairly detached, thriller-like type of narrative, obviously wanting this to be read by those who haven't thought about the problems of Apartheid any more than Ben had at the start of the book. And also knowing that not many people in South Africa would get to read it anyway, as long as the National Party remained in charge. But he did write both an Afrikaans and an English version of it, as he did for most of his later books.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
“What can I do but what I have done? I cannot choose not to intervene: that would be a denial and a mockery not only of everything I believe in, but of the hope that compassion may survive among men.”

Ben is a white South African school teacher who believes in the essential fairness of his
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government, until circumstances and the moral choices he must make upend his life. Gordon, the black janitor at the school where Ben teaches, approaches Ben for help when his teenage son Jonathan disappears during the Soweto riots. Ben agrees to help Gordon, and through witnesses they trace Jonathan to the custody of the Special Branch. Within days, however, Jonathan is dead, and the Special Branch denies ever having had him in custody.

Gordon feels compelled to investigate the circumstances of his son’s death, and Ben agrees to continue to help him. Very shortly, however, Gordon is arrested by the Special Branch, and after a short time in custody, Gordon is also dead, an alleged suicide. Now, Ben carries on the investigation, and other deaths ensue, including, as we learn in the opening pages of this novel, Ben’s own.

This book was written at the height of apartheid, just a few short years after the Soweto uprisings. The horrors of apartheid permeate the book in full force. The complicity and willingness of the vast majority of white people to believe the lies their government was telling (I.e. the Soweto uprisings were caused by Communist infiltrators) from a distance of the more than 40 years since this book was written seem almost unbelievable. Yet so many looked away from the government-sponsored murders, and accepted the arrests, harassment, the spying and beatings and torture and even the deaths of anyone questioning the regime.

While this is an important book (on the 1001 list), and is very well written, it does not totally transcend its time. I found that most of the female characters did not ring true. They are the most willing to accept the status quo and believe the government’s lies. The one female character who has some political awareness and courage, Melanie, seems mostly to be there as a love/sex interest for Ben (and there are a few torrid sex scenes I could have done without). Nevertheless, this is a book I recommend.

Parenthetically, the following quote, written in 1979, is one of the earliest mentions of white privilege I am aware of:

“Whether I like it or not, whether I feel like cursing my own condition or not...I am white. This is the small, final, terrifying truth of my broken world. I am white. And because I’m white I am born into a state of privilege. Even if I fight the system that has reduced us to this I remain white, and favored by the very circumstances I abhor. Even if I’m hated, and ostracized, and persecuted, and in the end destroyed, nothing can make me black.”

4 stars
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Original publication date



0061138630 / 9780061138638
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