An Ordinary Family Photo, An Extraordinary Story: The inspiration behind Congo Dawn by Katherine Scholes

An Ordinary Family Photo, An Extraordinary Story: The inspiration behind Congo Dawn by Katherine Scholes

Written by Katherine Scholes

3 Missing Believed KilledAn ordinary family photo – the kind we pin on our fridges – was one of the inspirations for Congo Dawn. The people in the picture are strangers to me but I’ve been haunted by their faces for as long as I can remember.

The photo, showing two adults and four kids, is in a book belonging to my parents – the memoir of an English nurse who was kidnapped by Simba rebels in the Congo in 1964. She survived her ordeal but all the missionaries she worked with were killed. As a child I used to stare at the chilling caption printed beneath the family snapshot: Hazel and Stephen were in England at the time of the uprising and so escaped massacre.

I was born and spent my childhood in Tanzania, so it was easy for me to identify with this tragedy. Alongside the horror, I felt a sense of confusion. As far as I could see, my parents – a doctor and an artist – devoted themselves to helping others. Why would anyone want to kill a family like ours? A child like me.

Many decades later, when I set out on the journey that would eventually lead me to Congo Dawn, I hoped to finally discover the answer.

At the same time I wanted to fill a gap in my writing. I’d already published four novels set in Tanzania – my African writing has been a way of interpreting my past. I’ve often drawn on the romantic appeal of Africa that is so widely enjoyed. Even in 2017, if you travel to Tanzania you will Katherine Scholes Author picsee tourists dressed in safari linens with leopard print accessories, looking as if they have wandered from the set of a Hollywood film. Tour companies offering glamorous tented safaris borrow the names of the hunter and writer Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. This part of Africa’s history seems to be something we can’t let go – as much a part of the Serengeti scenery as lions and zebras. In Congo Dawn I really wanted to explore the dark underside of that romance, and see what colonialism meant to the African people.

The Congo was the appropriate setting for such a story as it had experienced one of the most brutal regimes in history, immortalized in Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness. I chose the time of the Simba Rebellion not just because that was when the massacre of missionaries had occurred, but also because it took place soon after the country became independent. It was a potent backdrop – a time of high hopes and idealism, followed by bitter disappointment as groups including the Belgium military, the CIA and the mining companies all conspired to ensure that the Congo would not really become free.

The early sixties also happened to be the time of the Beatles, of London fashion designers raising hemlines (and eyebrows), of activist students talking about free love. It was a season of revolution, all over the world. A novelist loves contrast, and I could see it all here. Luxury and poverty. Dreams and nightmares. The darkness would make the themes of love, reconnection and hope shine out more brightly – and vice versa.

6 Research pinboard Congo Dawn-minOne of the challenges of writing a research-inspired novel is to make sure that facts and information don’t dominate the story. To me, the human story must always be kept at centre stage. And regardless of where or when one of my novels is set, I always explore something that is of interest to me, right now, in my own world.

Around the time I started thinking about Congo Dawn, I had encountered several rifts in families, involving fathers and daughters. I could see how fundamental this relationship is, on both sides. I was struck by the idea that a young woman should be able to look to her father as the one man who will always love her, and believe in her, and stand up for her, come what may. I began reading from psychology texts about what happens to the female psyche when this key bond is broken, or never formed. And what happens to a man denied his fatherhood.

I had this material in mind as I researched the Simba Rebellion. I soon learned that the missionaries who survived the massacre had been rescued by mercenary soldiers. I expected they would play a minor part in my novel. From the little I knew about mercenaries I had no desire to get too close to them! But as I read the memoirs of Mike Hoare, the man who recruited the commandos and fought alongside them, I found myself surprisingly intrigued. Why did these men – including at least one Australian – take on such a dangerous job? Sure, it was highly paid and a guaranteed adventure. But the chances of being killed or maimed were so high that I knew there had to be more.4 Returning to Africa

Gradually, the voice of Dan Miller emerged. He is a man of my age (mid-50s) with a tragic reason for wanting to fight in the Congo. I never expected half of the story to be told from his point of view – he just demanded more and more of the action. In the end I became completely absorbed by him.

When I want to take a reader into a world faraway from their own experience I like to have a character that can be their eyes and ears. Anna Emerson, the young secretary from Melbourne plays this role in Congo Dawn. The other half of the story (interleaved with Dan’s) is from her point of view. She hardly knows anything about the Congo. It was her childhood home but she has few memories of the place. She’s naïve and innocent – and she becomes transformed by her journey, in a way that perhaps we would like to be changed ourselves.

Because to me, this is the point of writing – and reading – a novel. To go on a journey that will take us out of our ordinary worlds into somewhere amazing, where we might experience every human emotion from despair and fear to joy and inspiration – and from which we can return to the here and now with some small treasure in our hands.

Purchase a copy, start reading Congo Dawn check out our full review, or listen to the Better Reading Podcast with Katherine Scholes

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            Synopsis

            You can’t go back and change the past. All you have left is the future. Melbourne secretary Anna Emerson's life is turned upside down when a stranger hands her a plane ticket to the Congo. The newly independent country is in turmoil, Simba rebels are on the move – but the invitation holds a precious clue to the whereabouts of her estranged father.Dan Miller signs up as a mercenary commando to fight the Communist uprising. He supports the cause, but that's not really why he's there. A devastating tragedy has taken all meaning from his life, and he's got nothing left to lose.In the Congo, Dan's belief in the war begins to crumble. Anna heads deeper into danger as she travels from a grand colonial mansion to an abandoned hotel on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to a leprosy mission in the jungle and beyond. Their two paths collide through circumstances more extraordinary than fate.Inspired by real events, Congo Dawn combines epic drama with an intimate journey into the heart of a fractured family, as two characters, in search of people they lost, at last find a way to come home. It is a landmark novel about good and evil, and the inexhaustible power of love.

            'Katherine Scholes is one of those rare writers who connects Australia to Africa in creative fiction. This is, in the best sense, a big, lusty novel. But it exceeds most such novels in sensitivity and imagination, in potent narrative and artistic terms.' - Tom Keneally

            About the author
            Katherine Scholes is the author of international bestsellers including The Rain Queen, Make Me An Idol, The Stone Angel, The Hunter’s Wife, The Lioness and The Perfect Wife. She is particularly popular in Europe where she has sold over two million books. 
             
            Her novel The Blue Chameleon won a New South Wales State Literary Award and The Stone Angel was longlisted in the International Dublin Literary Awards. Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages, and includes children’s titles as well as novels for adults. She has also worked as a documentary filmmaker.
             
            Katherine was born in Tanzania, the daughter of a missionary doctor and an artist. She has fond memories of going on safaris to remote areas where her father operated a clinic from his Land Rover. When she was ten the family left Tanzania, going first to England, then migrating to Australia. She now lives in Tasmania but makes regular trips back to Africa where many of her books are set.
            Katherine Scholes
            About the author

            Katherine Scholes

            Katherine Scholes was born in Tanzania, East Africa, the daughter of a missionary doctor and an artist. She has fond memories of travelling with her parents and three siblings on long safaris to remote areas where her father operated a clinic from his Land Rover. When she was ten, the family left Tanzania, moving first to England and then settling permanently in Tasmania. As an adult, Katherine moved to Melbourne with her film-maker husband. The two worked together for many years, writing books and making films. They have now returned to Tasmania, where they live on the edge of the sea with their two sons. Katherine is the author of four international bestsellers: The Rain Queen, Make Me An Idol, The Stone Angel, The Hunter's Wife andThe Lioness.

            Books by Katherine Scholes

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