Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Colonial America & Revolution

The Great Karoo

by (author) Fred Stenson

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2009
Colonial America & Revolution, War & Military, Friendship
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2009
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2008
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


From award-winning author Fred Stenson comes a richly evocative new novel, at once brutal and tender, spare of language, and profoundly moving.

The Great Karoo begins in 1899, as the British are trying to wrest control of the riches of South Africa from the Boers, the Dutch farmers who claimed the land. The Boers have turned out to be more resilient than expected, so the British have sent a call to arms to their colonies — and an a great number of men from the Canadian prairies answer the call and join the Canadian Mounted Rifles: a unit in which they can use their own beloved horses. They assume their horses will be able to handle the desert terrain of the Great Karoo as readily as the plains of their homeland. Frank Adams, a cowboy from Pincher Creek, joins the Rifles, along with other young men from the ranches and towns nearby — a mix of cowboys and mounted policeman, who, for whatever reason, feel a desire to fight for the Empire in this far-off war.

Against a landscape of extremes, Frank forms intense bonds with Ovide Smith, a French cowboy who proves to be a reluctant soldier, and Jefferson Davis, the nephew of a prominent Blood Indian chief, who is determined to prove himself in a “white man’s war.” As the young Canadians engage in battle with an entrenched and wily enemy, they are forced to realize the bounds of their own loyalty and courage, and confront the arrogance and indifference of those who have led them into conflict. For Frank, disillusionment comes quickly, and his allegiance to those from the Distict of Alberta, soon displaces any sense of patriotism to Canada or Britain, or belief that he’s fighting for a just cause.

The events of the novel follow the trajectory of the war. The British strategy of burning Boer farms, destroying herds, and moving Boer families into camps weakens the Boer rebels, but they refuse to give up. The thousands of Boer women and children who die in the camp make the war ever more unpopular among liberals in Britain. (In fact, this conflict marked the first use of the term “concentration camp” in war.) Seeing the ramifications of such short-sighted military decisions, and how they affect what happens to Frank and the other Canadians, is crucial to depicting the reality of the Boer War. By focusing on the experiences of a small group of men from southern Alberta, Fred Stenson brings the reality of what it would have been like to be a soldier in this brutal war to vivid life.

The Great Karoo is a deeply satisfying novel, marked by the complexities of its plot, the subtleties of its relationships, and the scale of its terrain. Exhilarating and gruesome by turns, it explores with passion and insight the lasting warmth of friendship and the legacy of devastation occasioned by war.

About the author

Fred Stenson has written sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction. Thing Feigned or Imagined: The Craft in Fiction is based on his experience as a writer of fiction and mentor . His cycle of historical novels, The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo have won and been nominated for many awards. The Trade (2000) and Lightning (2003) both won the Grant MacEwan Author’s Prize. The Trade also won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and the Edmonton Book Prize, and was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Award and short-listed for the Giller Prize. The Great Karoo was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2008. Stenson has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, Grant MacEwan College, Calgary Public Library, the community of Whistler, and many other places. He has directed the Wired Writing Studio at The Banff Centre since 2001 and mentored in its writing studios prior to that. He has been the wit columnist at Alberta Views Magazine for the entire fifteen-year life of the publication. He has also written over 150 films and videos.

Fred Stenson's profile page


  • Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
  • Nominated, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction

Excerpt: The Great Karoo (by (author) Fred Stenson)

Prologue (I)

fort macleod
March 16, 1897

The Concorde stagecoach had been a tarry, shining black when they left the train station in Calgary. Now every surface was dull, and little drifts of yellow sat on the ledges between roof, wall, and wagon. Inside, the schoolteacher pulled back the leather window cover and looked at the Macleod Hotel, where she had reserved a room for the night. An impolite crowd jostled between the coach and the hotel’s door. She slumped back in her seat.

The scald-faced drummer opposite wore a superior smile. He had his fingers stuck in his trouser pockets to the second knuckle, a posture that spread his jacket halves and exaggerated the tightness of his waistcoat. Each button strained and the shiny cloth replicated his seamed flesh in a way the schoolteacher did not want to see. Looking at the floor, she was treated to an image of his fallen socks speckled white with skin. His un-shined shoes tweezed a drab carpet bag, bulging with samples.

She pulled the window blind again and the wind deflected into her face. She saw the bizarre crowd passing, moving within itself like a boiling fudge. Bow-tied storekeepers. Tradesmen in dusty jackets with hanging pockets. Bareheaded people fighting the crowd to chase a hat. The drovers, or “cowboys,” the dandies of this society, wore wide-brimmed chapeaux that seemed glued to their heads. They leaned against the posts that held up the hotel’s overhanging balcony, smoking cigarettes and looking amused.

And Indians! These were mostly in white-man’s clothing but a few had blanket coats cinched at the waist with brass-studded belts. The wild ones had long, loose hair, slung like rags across their starved faces. Children clinging to their legs looked like little cadavers.

She turned to the smug drummer and asked, “Why are so many people here, then?”

For some reason he was holding his breath. The air escaped with a whistle. “Necktie party,” he said.

She hated him, and one of the main reasons was this way of talking. Nothing clear. You had to ask and ask, thus appearing more interested than you were.

“What do you mean by that?”


The drummer reached between his feet. He abruptly hoisted himself and his carpet bag, turned the handle, and let the wind slap the door open. He squeezed out through the explosion of wind. Desperately, the schoolteacher plunged after him and stayed in his wake until they were inside. In the sudden relative quiet of the hotel, she said, “And who is to be hanged?”

“Indian, Charcoal. Murdered a Mountie, Wilde.”

“I don’t understand you. A wild Indian?”

“Name of the Mountie he killed was Sergeant Wilde. Shot him.”

A short, stout Englishman was in a cubby behind a flip-up board, keys on hooks behind him. When her turn came to sign the book, he saw her inscribe schoolteacher beside her name and said, “You’d be the miss for Fishburn School, then.” She admitted she was. Next he asked if she was going to the hanging. Beyond his filthy front window, the mass was surging west now, heads thrust into the wind. She certainly would not be, she said. Ignoring her meaning, he told her that he’d given her the second-floor room at the rear, which had a view of the gallows. Then he flipped his counter, squeezed through, clapped on a hat, and ­left.

A pair of boys had brought the luggage in before running off to the hanging. Hers stood by the door. She dragged the two suitcases up through the creaking, booming hotel. It appeared she was the only person present. In her tiny room, she passed the bed and tugged the green paper blind, letting it roll to the top. The dirty little window quaked in dry putty, sprayed cold air, but did provide a fly-specked view of the gallows stage, and the crowd like a dark mat out of which the gibbet thrust.

After a while, men climbed to that stage. She counted four. The condemned man was shackled and handcuffed, and supported by the others. They took off the ankle irons and dragged a bag over his head. The priest, his dress-like garment whipping, aimed his mouth at the condemned man’s ear. Then there were only two: the hangman and his victim.

It was a shocking motion that went up, not down, when the trap door fell. She thought it would be quick but it wasn’t. The Indian kicked and kicked. Until finally he did hang. Deadweight. The school teacher understood the word anew.

Dinner was at two long communal tables. She sought out the drummer. After witnessing the execution, the people in the hotel were excited in a dangerous way. She felt protected against the drummer’s hot, bulky flank. Had she seen the hanging, he asked. Certainly not, she said. He was waiting to be asked what he had seen. She let him wait.

Across the board and down sat a rancher and his wide-eyed son, then an old man with a long white beard like something groomed in a creek bottom, and finally a skinny, nervous youth with boils on his face. All four were bent over their stew. The young fellow with the boils filled the silence as water fills space.

“God’s will. Says right in Exodus. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Hand for hand. Foot for foot. Says again in Leviticus, 24:21: ‘and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.’”

This biblical authority mopped his bowl with a sopping crust. Then the older man beside him began to unbend and rise. He rose and rose, being very tall above the waist. His beard kept coming up as well until its white tail cleared the table. He drew a long handkerchief from his shirt pocket and daintily dabbed his beard. All this unwinding and dabbing was preparation for speech, and when his mouth bloomed pink in his beard, the voice was loud and French.

“Yessir me, I ting dey hang da last wild Indian today.”

The boy was poised to spout more Old Testament, but the old man was not finished.

“Yessir me, I wonder what dey’ll ever do now.”

Prologue (II)

Colenso, Natal
December 16, ­1899

For two days, the British guns had flown their shells over the dozen brick houses of Colenso, blasting the hills on the far side of the Tugela River. The lyddite exploded yellow and the sum of the blasts was a red earth cloud tinged with green. When the smoke and dust cleared, the general’s staff scoped the slopes looking for escaping men. Nothing. They threw in shrapnel rounds but, again, the effect was nil. The hills were as impassive as great ­turds.

On the second afternoon, Gen. Sir Redvers Buller, Red Heifer to the Boers, briefed his senior officers on the plan of attack. On the right, Buller would send Dundonald to fight for a hill that would be their buffer. On the left, Hart’s Irishmen would advance to the river and cross. But the centre was the key. There, Hildyard’s infantry brigades, with artillery support, would cross the Tugela beside the wrecked railway bridge. Then, all together, they would force their way up the hills. They would battle to the besieged town of Ladysmith and free her.

Until two days ago, there’d been a more cautious plan to go around the position. Then came word of General Methuen’s defeat on the Modder River. Red Heifer had seen red. He would pussyfoot no longer. Up the Boer middle he would go. If Louis Botha got in his way, he would smash him and his farmers like so many eggs.

The attack began at daybreak. Buller stood on Naval Gun Hill with his signalmen and staff officers. It did not take long to come apart. Hart had a sketch that showed the drift where he was to cross. He’d been told it was beside a loop in the river, where a creek emptied. Now, for some reason, he was going into the loop. He had been told the loop was a dangerous salient and not to go there. Now a message arrived. Hart could not find the creek and was following a Native guide to some other crossing. Buller sent a galloper back: “Stay out of the loop!” But Hart’s men were already surging into it.

A disturbing sound turned Buller’s attention to the centre. Colonel Long’s fifteen-pound guns were erupting. It was too soon and they were farther away than they should be. Stopford came riding to say that Long was ahead of Hildyard, by at least a mile.

Buller studied the hills in front of which these mistakes were being made in his name. It was not yet seven in the morning. Please, he implored, let those hills be empty. His answer was an abrupt roar of field guns and automatic rifles. Not his.

Much of what came next Buller would find out later. Hart’s masterful packing of the river loop created a target a blind man could not miss. It was enfiladed by Boer trenches on three sides. A private pinned down in the grass said the Mauser bullets came so fast they looked like telegraph wire. Another called it a butcher’s kitchen. The artillery, attempting to adjust to the changed plan, dropped its first shots on top of Hart’s men.

In the centre, Long was wounded through the guts. A third of his men were mown down. His twelve lightest guns were abandoned to the enemy. Only the heavy naval guns, his cow guns, lagged behind enough to be saved. Going forward to survey the mess, Buller took a piece of shell to the ribs. Captain Hughes, his doctor, came to check on him, and was shot through the lungs. Hughes died a bubbling death. In the attempt to retrieve the lost guns, Tommy Roberts, General Lord Roberts’ son, was killed. Buller called it off. Accepted defeat.

The next day, there was a ceasefire. Malay body snatchers hurried the wounded into ambulances. Dotted around the plain were one hundred and forty-three dead.

In the worst places, the river loop and where Long’s guns had been lost, the sound was no longer warlike or even agonized. Often there was a gaping silence, so great and meditative that the occasional thrashing fight to live by horse or man seemed unmannerly, like a dish thrown on a temple floor.

Book One

The Canadian Mounted Rifles

Part One

To Africa

Pincher Creek, December ­1899

Tommy Killam stood with the other children in the crowd on Main Street, come to see the soldiers off to South Africa. Along the hitching post in front of Charlie Beebe’s livery barn, many horses stood saddled. Fred Morden’s bay had a feed bag but the rest were staring miserably at the frozen ground. A Chinook meant it was windy but warm enough that the soldiers could parade without buffalo coats. It would have looked better, thought Tommy, if they all had uniforms and if the uniforms had been the same. As it was, the Mounties had Mountie ones, Fred Morden had a different kind, and the rest were in ranching and cowboy ­clothes.

While his teacher was not looking, Tommy stepped out of line and ­re-­emerged at the corner. He pretended the move was so he could better hear Inspector Davidson, who was answering an earlier speech by Mr. Herron. Davidson was the Mountie in charge of the Pincher Creek detachment, and a terrible speaker who was trying to say how honoured he was to be an officer with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Second Battalion; and how . . . honoured he was to lead such fine brave soldiers as these into the . . . honourable war for freedom in South ­Africa.

The real reason Tommy moved was to have a better look at Fred Morden. The Mordens were Killam’s next-door neighbours on the north side of the creek, and though Tommy was only ten and Morden grown up enough to go to war, they were friends. Fred let Tommy come over and take his coyote hounds for runs in the hills. When Tommy’s father gave him a .22 rifle off their store shelves at Christmas, it was Morden who took him to the canyon and taught him to hit tomato cans. Fred Morden had said many times, “Here’s my good friend Tommy.”

On Sundays, in good weather, Morden and his friends, including his girlfriend Trudy Black, went coyote hunting with hounds. They dressed up and pretended it was an English fox hunt. Tommy was not allowed to go but attended the punch parties afterwards, either in Morden’s yard or in their front room depending on the weather. Tommy was given a glass of punch like everyone else while he fooled with the tired ­dogs.

For the last two months, the parties had consisted less of jokes and more of Fred Morden explaining to the others why they had to fight in South Africa.

“You can’t be part of an Empire, enjoying its fruits, and not do your part.”

When Canada sent its first thousand troops, they were infantry from eastern militias. Fred called it an outrage and said Canada’s westerners must demand their right to fight. When the Canadian Mounted Rifles was formed, based on Mountie officers and western troopers, Tommy told Inspector Davidson to count him in. “Part of the fun,” he told his friends, was that they could take their own ­horses.

Tommy Killam didn’t try to sound like Fred Morden around his own friends. It just came out that ­way.

Editorial Reviews

“A truly magnificent novel by one of Canada’s greatest living writers.”
— David Adams Richards, author of The Lost Highway

“Fred Stenson has once again brought the past to shimmering life, this time evoking the hallucinatory experience of war in a foreign land. While the novel centres on Frank Adams — a wide-eyed cowboy who joins the Canadian Mounted Rifles — it encompasses much more than a tale of a single soldier. In language both vivid and precise, Stenson paints a vast and damning portrait of war. Dark matter indeed, but a species of transcendent light shows through in the tender feelings men harbour for their horses, in the fierce, unspoken friendships those men forge, and in the life-affirming rush of romantic love. You’ll be tempted to read it in one sitting. Go ahead — the story will be with you long after you close the book.”
— Alissa York, author of Effigy

“With The Great Karoo, Stenson has produced another outstanding historical novel, a masterly work at once original, subversive and significant.”
The Globe and Mail

“Fred Stenson is a gifted writer of historical fiction, and The Great Karoo is an excellent addition to his oeuvre.”
Edmonton Journal

“A page-turner…. Through gorgeous prose, Stenson puts readers right into the saddle.”
Calgary Herald

Other titles by Fred Stenson