Gillie Bowen, born in Nakuru in Kenya and now living in Loire Valley, France, traveled the world extensively as a child. She is a retired British journalist and the best-selling author of amuse-bouche (rough translation… taste tantalizer), a collection of French recipes and photographs adapted for British and American markets. Amuse-bouche is available on Amazon.
What I am writing about today, though, is not French “taste tantalizers.” It is about Gillie’s second book, the story of George and Molly Hudson, brother and sister. As young children they witness the horror of a tribal castration in an African jungle. They lose their home and their family in a devastating fire. They suffer the anguish and heartbreak of their father’s betrayal. With nothing left of their childhood, they board a ship to start a new life in another country, where lion, hippo, rhino and leopard rule. At the age of just ten and eleven, they are alone, but they have each other Beneath African Skies. The author’s recounting is based on the true story as told to her by the two siblings. It is a story that takes place in 20th century Africa: hyena, crocodile and cobra attacks, gold rush mania, crater plunges, near-fatal accidents, typhoid fever and murder are just some of the ordeals they must face. It is the story of coping with death and the horrors of the Second World War: George as an RAF fighter pilot, Molly as a pregnant and lonely bride in war-torn Britain. Above all, it is the story of their survival and their love for each other.
Though the story is about George and Molly, it begins many years before, around the time of their Great-Great grandparents wedding. It begins with John Hougham Hudson and Elizabeth Ann Walker of Broadstairs in England, who, while still in the bliss of their wedding nuptials, join a band of brave young people who would become the sixty-seven men and women known as the 1820 White Settlers. They leave their Kentish home in England on a small four-vessel fleet departing from Deptford in London. It is the 12th of February, 1820; their destination, Simonstown in South Africa. Quickly we move forward to 1918 when George Hudson is born in Benoni, near Johannesburg. His sister, Molly, joins him fifteen months later. Before they die, both at age 91, they help Molly’s daughter, Gillie, piece together the story of the family.
And so, this is Gillie Bowen’s story.
Here is my take on Beneath African Skies by Gillie Bowen.
Beneath African Skies reads like fiction but all the time I knew it was a true story that started with John and Elizabeth Hudson in 1820, a young English couple who upon their marriage announced that they were going to make their new home in British Colonial South Africa as part of a British “scheme” to populate the Zuurfeld. The “scheme” was to form a barrier between the warring Zulu tribe and the people to the south. I sailed with them aboard the Zoroaster on their arduous journey full of stormy seas, seasickness and dysentery until they were dropped off in Simon Town, South Africa where they settled in huts in a country so different from the one in which they were born and raised. I then quickly moved through four generations until the births of George and Molly Hudson some 100 years later. And that is where this story truly began and the author, Gillie Bowen, started pulling me in.
It seemed strange to know that Gillie was writing about her mother’s life over 80 years ago, from birth through childhood, into adulthood and motherhood and all the amazing challenges she and her brother, George, faced along the way in South Africa. I learned of places of which I’d never heard like, Kisumu, Zesfontein, Benoni, Eldoret and Kijabel, and go to others such as the Great Rift Valley, Lake Elementaita, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha. Then I went to war and found myself holding my breath, wondering if George, or Molly’s husband, Boris, would come back alive. This was real life and sometimes real life can be unfair.
Thank you Gillie Bowen, for this wonderful journey Beneath African Skies. It was simply… AMAZING!