Of Wheels and Witches (by Stephen Hayes)

In this technological era,there are many people I consider friends even though I have never met them. One of these is Steve Hayes, an Orthodox Christian academic writer and teacher who lives in South Africa, with whom I have had many interesting online discussions over the past twenty-five years. When I heard that he had published a children’s book, and moreover that he was offering it free to download for a limited period, I had no hesitation about acquiring it.

However, I tend to keep most of my Kindle reading for times when I’m travelling, as I still prefer to read paper books. So when I was in the UK recently, wanting something fairly light to read at bedtime and then on my flight back to Cyprus, I decided to read Steve’s book ‘Of Wheels and Witches’.

It’s advertised as a children’s book, set in South Africa, and the impression I got from the early chapters is that it was an adventure story for children of about nine to twelve who want something with a bit of meat. Jefferey is the main protagonist; he’s eleven, and on his way to stay at a farm while his parents are abroad.

There’s plenty of good description in the first chapters, as Jefferey starts to explore his new environment, and gets to know nine-year-old Catherine - or Katya - the Russian niece of his hostess. Some of the conversation seemed a tad stilted in places, but that’s often the case with books for children of this age. There are words in South African English here and there, reminding me each time that this book is set in that country.

The story gradually becomes much darker. I found some of the book quite tense; there’s ongoing symbolism relating to a wheel, and St Catherine, the saint whose name was given to the spinning fireworks due to the way she was condemned to die. For some reason I had expected this to be a fantasy story, but it’s firmly set in the real world in the 1960s: the apartheid era of South Africa. Having said that, there’s a strong supernatural element: the book is written from a Christian perspective, and also includes unpleasant curses from witch doctors that were apparently fairly commonplace at the time.

Jefferey and Katya get to know a girl whose father is a rich white farmer, and also become friendly with a black family. This leads to all kinds of trouble, some of it extremely unpleasant. As social history, this is excellent; I could almost feel myself living in the apartheid regime, albeit as a child, seeing not just discrimination but anger and hatred, and also rampant unfairness.

The latter part of the book is fast-paced and more violent than I’m comfortable with. This is not an escapist unrealistic adventure story of the Enid Blyton variety. It’s all too real, even gory in places, and as such I wouldn’t want a child of nine or ten to read it. Moreover, the children are very young to have been allowed out on their own in such dangerous circumstances; the adults seem to think nothing of letting them ride about the countryside, even when it’s clear that there’s the potential for tragedy. The characters are drawn skilfully, and it was easy to identify with them.

I doubt if teenagers would read this, since the book is about younger children, but the style and pace is, in my view, more appropriate for those of about thirteen to sixteen (or older). This is a powerful story, one that needs to be told, although it’s not ideal as bedtime reading. I’m glad I was able to finish it on a daytime flight. Definitely recommended to anyone wanting to understand the apartheid regime from the perspective of children, but don’t be misled by the early chapters that imply a gentle adventure story.

'Of Wheels and Witches' isn't available on Amazon, but can be bought in various ebook formats from the Smashwords site.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Steve Hayes said...

Thanks very much for the comments, which are very helpful as I try to write a sequel.

One comment:

The book is set in 1964, when helicopter parents hovering over their kids, if not less common than nowadays, were at least seen as less normative. Certainly when I was age 11 or 12 I went off riding my bike or a horse, alone or with friends, and when I got home my parents would ask if I had had a good time.

And Alan Garner's novels, very scary, set in much the same period in England, have children doing much the same sort of things when they are guests at a farm on holiday.

Sue said...

I should probably try reading Alan Garner's novels some time. As a teenager, I found them too scary and tense, and didn't finish even the first one. I wouldn't want a child under the age of about 12 or 13 reading those, either!

Besides, as far as I recall, they were fantasy rather than set in the real world; somehow tension and even some violence in fantasy never frightens me as much as tension in reality-based fiction.

Steve Hayes said...

There are two kinds of fantasy, I think. One is stories like Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, were people from our world go into another one.

Then people like Charles Williams and Alan Garner wrote about another world infiltrating or invading ours. Actually Garner's Elidor has both -- children go to another world, bring back objects that attracts the attention of the other world to ours. Perhaps that is why they are more scary. But I really recommend Garner's books.