East Africa

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn history is through historical fiction. Though I’ve studied African history and read a fair amount of nonfiction about the continent, I may have learned just as much from Assegai by South African novelist Wilbur Smith, a popular story set in British East Africa (now Kenya) in the period 1906-1918. (The title means “sword” in the language of the Masai.)

As a novel, Assegai is far from perfect. It’s the adventurous tale of a young white African man, just 18 at the outset, who displays his seemingly superhuman prowess as a soldier, a wild game hunter, a fighter pilot, and a lover. To say the least, Leon Courtney is hard to believe, as is his love, the extraordinary young woman whom we first meet as Eva von Wellberg. She is, of course, a paragon of beauty, grace, intelligence, cunning, and athletic ability both in and out of bed. And the two aristocratic Germans who play large roles in the book as antagonists could easily fit nicely into the role of villains in early silent films, twisting moustaches and evil eyes included.

Assegai by Wilbur Smith ★★★★☆

Hyperbolic characterizations aside, though, Assegai opens up a window on a time and place about which I know so little. The author’s portrayal of the Masai people with whom Leon Courtney works, while idealized, projects the pride and dignity of an historically important ethnic community. As the action unfolds in the years before and during the First World War, Assegai throws light on the historical sideshow that was the struggle between German and British colonial forces in that theater so many thousands of miles from the Somme and the Argonne.

Assegai is one of the 13 novels in the saga of the Courtney family, which spans the five hundred years beginning in the 1600s.

Wilbur Smith, with more than 30 historical novels to his credit, is probably one of the world’s best-selling writers. His books loom large on the shelves of bookshops in many parts of the world outside the U.S., but they are less extensively read here , because his subject matter is his beloved native Africa.

Smith’s writing style is full of color and imagery. Hyperbole aside, it’s a pleasure to read.

For further reading

This is one of 20 top books about Africa, including both fiction and nonfiction.

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