The African Queen
by C.S. Forester
I still haven't seen the Katharine Hepburn-Humphrey Bogart movie, directed by John Huston, for which Bogie won his acting Oscar. But now I've read the book the movie was based on, The African Queen
by C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower saga. Written in the mid-1930s, it takes place in about 1914 when WWI is gearing up.
Rose Sayer is the sister of a middle-class English missionary in German Central Africa. When hostilities break out the Germans come and recruit all the black Africans to be soldiers or bearers in their army. I mean ALL, men, women, and children, to defend the vulnerable and isolated colony. This effectively destroys all that the old missionary has worked for and in his despair he goes into a fit of malaria and dies, leaving his shapely but horse-faced, 33-year-old spinster sister all alone.
She is not alone long. The other Brit in the colony, a trim little cockney engineer who works at the German-licensed, Belgian gold mine up the river--his name is Charlie Allnutt--drops in, helps Rose bury her brother, then takes her on board his wood-burning steam launch, the African Queen. His plan is to elude the Germans until the end of the war, which he expects will be any day. Her plan is to use the supplies he was picking up for the mine--which include air cylinders and TNT--to blow up the steam-powered gunboat that patrols the lake at the bottom of the river and effectively cuts off any chances of the British penetrating into German territory.
Allnutt is frightened half to death, but being of a meek and nervous disposition (and ill-inclined to endure the "silent treatment") he gives in to Rose's plan. Her strength of will and till-now-hidden talents get them through a series of rapids, then other seemingly impossible challenges. Through weeks of heartbreaking toil, danger, pestilence and sickness, heat and the peccadilloes of the rickety old steam launch, the two do the seemingly impossible, the almost unheard-of--they get the African Queen downriver to the edge of the lake, and lay their plan to destroy the German steamer (the Koenigin Luise, aka the Louisa), and are about to put their plan into effect, when...
Well, that would be spoiling the whole thing for you. Forester again demonstrates his ability to build up to a shattering climax, and his propensity to let off tension with a sudden anticlimax. The book finally isn't really a story about a military achievement, and its ending is neither tragic nor quite what you would call a "Hollywood ending." It's really about the love that develops between the almost comical, hard-luck little engineer and the flinty, determined young woman who gradually frees herself from a lifetime of inhibitions and self-reproach. The one finds his manhood and the other her womanhood, both in their flowering love for each other. Even that plot arc undergoes a bit of anticlimax, I suppose, but the real story in the end turns out to be about them and how they go from what they were to what they become, individually and together. And patriotism, warfare, and the management of the African Queen turn out to be but the hothouse in which their romance grows.
Forester proves again where he truly excels--the inner workings of character, the depiction of complex people who in their three-dimensioned realism practically jump off the page. He is at the same time compassionate toward them and given to moments of wry humor. These are not ideal people, and it is not a glamorous romance. The morality and attitude toward Christianity depicted in this book is questionable, but the love affair in it is not so much erotic or scandalous as it is touching and character-developing.
If you read this book, be prepared for a rousing adventure, a moving relationship, and a heartbreaking disappointment--though, as I said, the ending is not tragic. Though the characters do not exactly reach the goals they set for themselves, they do arrive at the end in a better place than where they began, malaria notwithstanding.
Recommended Age: 16+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.