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One Hundred and Four Horses: An accidental testament to the messy legacy of African colonialism

Author Mandy Retzlaff

One Hundred and Four Horses
Mandy Retzlaff
HarperCollins Canada

The first time Mandy Retzlaff nearly lost me was on page 19. She has just fallen in love and is about to get married. Her new husband is Rhodesian, and she has to explain a little history, "The country's white farmers, isolated and not well protected, were targeted by the so-called freedom fighters." Her husband, Pat, is certainly brave, certainly stubborn. After the negotiated peace of 1980, the election of Robert Mugabe, and the re-christening of Southern Rhodesia (I do remember Ian Smith) as Zimbabwe, the Retzlaffs find that unlike many of their neighbours, they can't quit the country – they love the land, they love their animals, and they feel tied to the grave of one of their children, who has died at three months old. One Hundred and Four Horses is Retzlaff's memoir of the next 32 years of her life, and she certainly has adventures to relate, but that single phrase, "so-called freedom fighters" is the clue to the tunnel vision through which she sees her world, and her memoir reminds me of nothing quite so much as Gone With the Wind.

Eighty-three years before Retzlaff's 1978 wedding, Cecil Rhodes founded Rhodesia, named it after himself, and pursued his two projects of diamond mining and bringing white settlers to southern Africa. By 1975, the white population of Rhodesia was at its highest proportion ever – about 4 per cent. You would not know by reading Retzlaff's memoir that any of the African population had personalities, ambitions, epistemologies, hopes, or even emotional connections to one another as deep and sophisticated as those Retzlaff feels for her children, her husband, her friends, and her horses. She mentions a few Africans – apart from those trying to steal her farm, kill her horses, or extort money from her, they are grooms, laborers, people who say "madam." She makes no attempt to bring them to life on the page, as she does the countless horses – Brutus, Shere Khan, Black Magic, Deja-vous, Princess, Grey, etc.

Nevertheless, Retzlaffs' adventures are strangely compelling – a reader has many reasons to read on in disbelief. In some ways, the Retzlaffs come across as suckers – as their neighbours decide they must leave the country for Australia, New Zealand, or the U.K., they call the Retzlaffs and ask them to take their horses, and the Retzlaffs do. The herd swells into the seventies, partly because some of the colts have escaped being gelded, and springtime brings new foals. Pat dedicates himself to training the horses as well as he can, using modern, horse-whisperer methods, and manages to give a few renegades (Black Magic, for example) a working life. But because Mugabe has instituted a campaign of land reform, a.k.a. giving his supporters rights to the holdings of white farmers, the Retzlaffs must move, over and over, often parking parts of the herd in one place and parts of the herd in another, and attempting as best they can to feed, care for, and immunize them (American and English readers might be amazed at how often they must be "dipped" against ticks).

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Retzlaff is good at communicating how the beauty of the landscape and the magic of Africa keeps calling to her and her husband to stay, to make the best of things, to endure. They move farther east, first towards the mountains, and then on to Mozambique, where horses are so unknown (read "invasive species") that they are referred to as "big dogs." In Mozambique, the Retzlaffs make their living giving tourists trail rides through the grandeur, but, perversely, life is perhaps more frightening there, though more on account of natural causes than political ones. In the epilogue, Retzlaff returns with a friend to a friend's old farm, now a broken-down mess. She and her friend walk through the house, and her friend says to the new owner, "This is my farm." Exchanging a look with the woman who now owns the farm, Retzlaff writes, "It is only now that I realize: I am not the only one afraid."

This is Retzlaff's first book, and she does have a historic and dramatic tale to tell. I am sure that, faced with similar challenges, I would have bailed almost immediately. I am caught between admiring the Retzlaffs' courage and gawking at their foolishness. Maybe no one told her how tricky writing a memoir is; this one is not what the author wishes it were – a grand inspiring tale. But it does remind us that undoing the legacy of colonialism and invasion is insanely complicated for everyone involved.

Jane Smiley is the author of Horse Heaven, A Year at the Races, and a series for young adults, The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch.

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