The Secret History of a Bestseller

The Covenant : Outlining James Michener's novel

Michener brought a notebook to the table; I had a ruled scribbling block in front of me. I'd arrived with a carload of books from my library that offered a broad, popular and objective background to historical and contemporary South African figures and issues, as well as a ready reference for the many topics we would cover. Thus armed, we went to work on the novel.

One of the first keys we sought was the locale and "movement" of the story, essentially on an axis from Cape Town to Zimbabwe. We mapped out twelve stages along that imaginary route coinciding with the periodicity of South African history, essentially the unfolding of the frontier as settlers penetrated north. A movement that would, of course, come up against a counter migration of Xhosa and Zulu flowing down toward the south.

Locations in The Covenant from Errol Lincoln Uys plotting notes
Movement of the three main families in The Covenant from Outline prepared by Errol Lincoln Uys

Before these "hard" dates, there would be scenes set on the living veld eons before man's arrival at Vrymeer (Lake of Freedom,) home to Australopithecus and later Bush people (San) remembered in rock paintings in the hill caves of Vrymeer and its lovely lake, where Mal Adriaan van Doorn is first of his line to behold a promised land.

This photo inspired "Vrymeer" - "Lake of Freedom" - core location in The Covenant novel

With this big picture in our sights, we could get down to the essentials: This we did chronologically, literally working our way through the decades of three centuries-plus of South Africa's recorded history, making stops in years and at events where we saw a role for our Van Doorns, Saltwoods and Nxumalos and those around them.

I have pages from my original scribbling block with penciled notes I made as Jim and I sat talking. - Names, dates, lines, squiggles, scratches and scrawls, which were subsequently transferred to a second and tidier pencil draft, then a third "yellow page" draft, a fourth revision of this, and finally the draft "Outline" to which Michener specifically refers.

Draft plotting for Michener's Covenant by Errol Lincoln Uys
Errol Lincoln Uys's original notes jotted down while discussing ideas with James Michener during their plotting sessions
at St. Michaels, Maryland in May 1978. This page refers to their talks about the Dutch settlers at the Cape in
the 17th century, as represented by the van Doorns family.
Errol Lincoln Uys - Apartheid chapter plotting notes for Michener's Covenant
Page 1 of Errol Lincoln Uys's proposal for the structure of   The Covenant chapter on Apartheid from "birth" to "death."
Errol Lincoln Uys rough plotting notes for apartheid chapter in Michener's Covenant
Page 2 of Errol Lincoln Uys's proposal for the structure of The Covenant chapter on Apartheid from "birth" to "death."
Errol Lincoln Uys - Plotting notes for Apartheid chapter in Michener's South African epic
Page 3 of Errol Lincoln Uys's proposal for the structure of The Covenant chapter on Apartheid from "birth" to "death."

The Covenant: Plotting the apartheid chapter in the novel

It was my idea to show the effect of apartheid on South Africans of all races with six vignettes of segregation and personal laws that affected citizens from birth to death. Key elements that would finally appear in the novel are in the scribbling black jottings above.

1)(Born) Immorality Act - Craig Stanworth ("Saltwood"), 20, first year varsity, Witwatersrand, holiday x Shamilah Jacobs, builder's daughter, Malay, university student, Flying Squad, Canada

2) Race Classification - Coloured child. "She was trying to be what she wasn't" + 1972 (Jotted down is a rough genealogical table that shows linkage between Van Doorns and the descendant of a black slave)                      

3)Group Areas - Sophiatown x Vrymeer? = MAP = coffee table = spill scene
4)Migratory Labor - Part of Vrymeer x Uncle of Daniel (Nxumalo) x Stanworth (Saltwood) woman involved. 

5)BOSS (Bureau of State Security) x reporter probes situation x Stanworth (Saltwood) x Interrogation x Dominee's son = BOSS officer x Daniel Nxumalo students at U Zululand x SASO activities.

 6)Death - Marius? Comes on accident scene.Man knocked down. White ambulance refuses to take him x Consequences: wife x pass laws x residence x move to Bantustan x Mrs. Stanworth (Saltwood) efforts x Black Sash.

These jottings, even the more detailed plotlines in the typed-up synopsis, can only offer a glimpse into the hours of talk between Michener and me. Easily twelve and closer to fifteen hours a day, sweeping back and forth across the centuries, chasing down ghosts of the past to bring back to life in the pages of the novel. If there was one thing that drew us to each other immediately, it was this indefatigable staying power and drive, the ability to totally immerse ourselves in our subject and the lives of our characters and to block out the rest of the world. As Jim would later recall:

Never once did I say, 'So now we have this Englishman at the mission station in 1819. How does he get to the Orange River?' without Uys having nine or eleven possibilities, all good, all logical, all beautifully coordinated. Often I would say, 'too complicated for our boy,' or 'I doubt our boy would go so far,' but just as often I would say, 'That might be just what he'd do.'

The Covenant: Naming the characters in the novel

These early scribbling block scratchings bring crystal memories of our plotting sessions. I see names of characters jotted down and recall the thinking behind a particular moniker. The surname "Van Doorn" was Michener's pick and a good one for in translation, "doorn" is "thorn," and surely there would be Van Doorns meriting the description.

Our Huguenot family of de Pré was prompted by a family manuscript I have that begins: "This is my true and real life story. My name is Leonora Du Pre. I was born in the year 1892 on a farm in the Cape province (sic)." Joey Uys and "Leonora duPre"My mother, Joey Uys, was author of this fifteen thousand word manuscript written at my urging years earlier. Joey felt more comfortable with a nom-de-plume, though it's also worth noting that her mother's ancestors were actually Huguenot "Jordains," a name I suggested for Visitor Jordain who comes to the Cape with Paul de Pré and the other refugees.
Joey Uys - Personal hand-written memoir referenced in Michener's Covenant
Joey Uys - Personal hand-written memoir referenced in Michener's Covenant for  naming of the Du Pre family.

As any writer knows, names can be critical in shaping a character in one's mind. So, for example, in the talk that led to "Mal ("Crazy") Adriaan," I named "Adriaan," for a whacky Afrikaner cousin, and similarly, Lodevicus "the Hammer" for an erstwhile colleague with a violent nature, the fictional Lodevicus becoming the scourge of the frontier Xhosa.

There's a Marius van Doorn in the apartheid era, a good man whose image was derived from another Marius I knew in Cape Town - Marius Barnard, an enlightened Afrikaner surgeon who saw the writing on the wall long before others did. If I look at the Saltwoods, I see Anthony and Susan and Clara, Roger and Timothy, Michael and Craig, and Marius Van Doorn and Claire Howard, all with a very familiar ring in my circle - names I jotted down on a check book deposit slip used as scrap paper amid the plottings!

Errol Lincoln Uys - Rough notes for naming characters in Michener's novel, The Covenant
Errol Lincoln Uys - Rough notes for naming characters in Michener's novel, The Covenant

The Covenant: Core themes of the novel

At the end of the first week, I moved out of the studio to spend the weekend in a hotel at St. Michaels, Jim and Mari having guests who were staying over. Over the three days, I wrote what I call the "yellow draft," my first outline for the book that incorporated the broad ideas from our initial exhaustive sessions, plus additions of my own that occurred to me as I worked with the notes I'd jotted down. 

The plotline is chronological with dates of characters' births/deaths/ marriages and significant events touching their lives, both historical and personal. The first family trees for the Van Doorns, Saltwoods (Stanworths) and Nxumalo's appear here, as well as my first notation for a possible title: Covenant.

The clean-typed yellow pages provided the basis for our second four-day brainstorming. Once again, we began at the very beginning, as I note in this synopsis's "Chapter One:" 

"Creation: The Diamond, the land, from dawn of time... to the arrival of Early Man. Emphasis on the mystical/almost supernatural value of the Diamond. Site: Present-day Blinkfontein - "sparkling fountain" - farm."

I've crossed out "Blinkfontein" and replaced it with a new name for the farm: Vrymeer, an Afrikaans word meaning "Lake of Freedom." This was a far more meaningful title for the property of the Van Doorns given the irony of a land where the struggle for freedom had been and was then still so bitter a battle.

Errol Lincoln Uys - Original draft plot for James Michener's novel, The Covenant
Excerpt from Errol Lincoln Uys's original draft plot for James Michener's novel, The Covenant
Excerpt from Errol Lincoln Uys draft family tree for Michener's novel, Covenant
Excerpt from Errol Lincoln Uys draft family tree for Michener's novel, The Covenant

Glancing over the yellow draft today, I get echoes of Michener and me shaping core themes that stayed the course of the novel: The Bush people (San) on the living veld at Vrymeer, their connection with Zimbabwe and the Cape; Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator's vision of the "land beyond the darkness;" the "gold rush" of great and ancient Zimbabwe; the timing of the southward “trek” of the Nguni (Bantu)and its importance in debunking the empty land myth; the Hedge of Bitter Almond at the Cape and heavy symbolism of "separatism;" the total break between Mal Adrian and the Cape van Doorns in 1728, "presaging later divisions in the ranks of Afrikaners and the split between a “liberal” south and “verkrampte” north (literally, cramped or narrow-minded;) Adrian's tremendous vision of Southern Africa stretching to the Zambesi, and from ocean to ocean; the black "Boers" of the South African War; Detleef van Doorn's "education," his rise through the ranks of Afrikanerdom and work as architect of apartheid; Moses and Daniel Nxumalo from 1948 to Soweto 1976, with Moses as servant of the Saltwoods, among other steps on an epic road.

And our thoughts on the conclusion: "Probably around Vrymeer... Nearby a splendid diamond is found. Not the one in the creation. The reader knows that it exists but it will not be found. It is symbolic of the notion that Africa herself is Master of all destinies here... The American to be introduced at a later stage. A geologist who makes the discovery of the diamond... He has been working in an African state for a company with ties to South Africa's Anglo American. About to return to U.S., he is offered a geology post in South Africa for one year. Provides opportunity for "outsider" view, desperately seeking answers to the race questions that plague him... and the threads that must lead to the diamond pipe on Vrymeer.

Here, too, I expanded my thoughts for the Apartheid chapter scratched out on the scribbling block:

Apartheid (Uys - Yellow Draft)

After death of Detleef content that he has protected South Africa . What did Detleef's Grand Design mean in the lives of citizens:

• BORN... Immorality Act.Case history. 1950 Act: Colored/White, see English family.Craig, age 20, student at University of Witwatersrand to Cape Town for December vacation. At Clifton Beach meets Shamilah Boordien, daughter of Cape Malay builder and wife. Summer holiday affair, meets parents, house Signal Hill etc. She is at UCT (before University of Western Cape.) She has been involved (with white) once before. On Clifton Beach does not "play white" but flaunts Apartheid. Craig takes her to Radnor-style hotel (*ELU= hotel where I stayed while living in Cape Town in 1964.) Housekeeper blows whistle on them. Arrested under Immorality Act. He gets suspended sentence; she is jailed. After her sentence to Canada-family there. 

WHO ARE YOU... Race Classification 1950 Act: Case of young girl.

PETRONELLA van Doorn (daughter of Marthinus van Doorn, married ADAM, son of salve woman and Dutchman)
+S (1) Adrian
+S (2) Lodevicus
+S (3) Johannes
+D (4) Tjaart
+S (5) Jakobus x Coloured woman x Bywoner (sharecropper) Mother + White Afrikaner
 +D (6) girl aged 9 = PETRA
At time of inquiry = 1 Coloured grandparent
Newcomers from Transvaal,see 9 year old at school, start inquiry
Child reclassified Coloured + mother Coloured
Farm bought by inquiry instigator
To District 6 x razed to ground, 1970-72 + move + girl 13/14, raped 

• WHERE YOU ARE... Group Areas mass removal..1950 Act. Mass removal of Indians from Johannesburg

Sophiatown witness, Barney Desait, Patel, '46

Repatriation offer (to India)

Lenasia, 22 miles from city
Home: Fordsburg/Diagonal Street 

YOUR WORK... Migratory Labor Laws.black case.
Gold mine, migratory labor, compound, from Transvaal x NE, Zimbabwe connection, tribal man x life and times on Mine Compound

• YOUR THOUGHTS... BOSS operation (Bureau of State Security)

The Interrogation
Reporter probes story x parallel
Dominee's son x verkrampte x boss officer
Classic Boss interrogation
Black = Nxumalo student/University of Zululand 

• YOUR DEATH... Ambulance service apartheid anecdotes/separate cemeteries etc.

Starts with ambulance apartheid
Man, black, knocked down and ambulance, whites-only, refuses to pick up

Consequences: wife, pass laws, residence, moved to plot in Bantustan

Jane Stanworth's efforts, age 66