– Bobby Goodbread
A man who protested alongside black South Africans for the end of apartheid, freelance journalist Robert Dell is a devoted pacifist with a deeply ingrained sense of justice. When his wife and children are killed after a truck deliberately forces them off the road, Dell’s grief turns into outrage when he is accused of being the one responsible for their deaths.
Initially placing his trust in the justice system to set things straight, Dell quickly realizes those responsible for the deaths of his family have connections in both the police force and court; he’s being railroaded, and the only way he can prove his innocence is to bring down the real culprit. Not an easy task, and one with which Dell reluctantly accepts his father’s help.
Ironically, his father, Bobby Goodbread, was himself only recently released from prison, where he was serving time for his involvement with death squads under the apartheid government. Fortunately Goodbread is still connected to his old network, because the man he and Dell are after is big game.
Inja Mazibuko is both a corrupt police officer and a Zulu Chief. He also happens to be suffering from full-blown AIDS, a situation he intends to cure with a traditional remedy; marrying a young virgin. His intended, 16-year-old Sunday, wants nothing to do with the warlord but has little choice. Her shot at salvation comes in the form of Disaster Zondi (who also appeared in Smith’s Mixed Blood), a former police officer who returns home in order to lay the demons of his criminal youth to rest. When Zondi inadvertently receives an invitation to the wedding he realizes he may actually know Sunday, and that under no circumstances can she be allowed to marry the vicious Mazibuko.
Author Roger Smith weaves the threads of these five individuals’ lives into an intense, evocative, and ultimately stark tapestry. Though most are familiar with South Africa’s apartheid past and its fall, few are probably aware of the current state of the country. Smith very adeptly uses the plights of the individual characters as embodiments of the challenges facing the country itself. The struggle for justice and redemption that Dell, Goodbread, and Zondi are wrestling with serves as a mirror for the country’s struggle to find the same, while Mazibuko and Sunday are reflections of the dichotomy of the Zulu culture; one foot planted firmly in the past, the other striding toward a new, more enlightened future.
It’s not often something so bleak can also be beautiful, but Smith paints such a vivid, realistic picture of the characters and their hopes and motivations that one can’t help but appreciate and be overwhelmed by the desire for happiness they – and the country – are all striving to reach in their own ways. Smith’s writing is a master class in how to create a novel that speaks to the reader on multiple levels, as well as how to infuse a work with a message without beating the reader over the head with it. Dust Devils is truly powerful writing.