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'The African Queen' by C S Forester

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The story of the 1935 novel The African Queen is far more well-known for the 1951 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. While the film is unusually faithful to the original storyline, this is a prime example of the superiority of the written word.

The Basic Plot

Rose Sayer is living at an Anglican Mission in Africa with her brother, Samuel, who accepted the assignment after graduating from seminary. They share a small residence near their church in a native village.

When World War I breaks out in Europe the forces in German East Africa react by gathering the native population for war production. To prevent their desertion, the villages are burned while the former occupants watch. Although the missionary's home is spared, Samuel is overcome by stress and fever, and passes away in the night.

The next morning Charlie Allnutt, a mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, who worked at a nearby Belgian owned mine arrives at the mission. He tells Rose that the Germans are creating havoc all over the region, and that he barely managed to avoid them as he was returning with a load of supplies on the company's 30 foot open launch, The African Queen. While he buries her brother, Charlie convinces Rose to gather her meagre belongings and to join him on the launch before the Germans return.

Charlie moves the Queen down river to a quiet bay where he brews a pot of tea. The two of them get acquainted and Charlie explains that he came to Africa from his boyhood home on the Canadian plains as a labourer to build a bridge. When the job was completed he had moved from place to place, finding work and learning new skills. Rose has become obsessed with the war and wants to "do her bit" to aid Britain in her struggle.

After Charlie has explained about the explosives and gas cylinders that are among the stores they carry, Rose conceives a plan. They will rig The African Queen as a large torpedo, steam down the river and blow up the German gunboat on the lake at its mouth. Charlie secretly believes her plan to be impossible because the river cannot be navigated in so large a boat. Many years before the Queen had been broken down into manageable sections, carried overland and reassembled at the mine. Seeing how excited Rose was with her wild plan, Charlie pretends to share her goal and even adds suggestions of his own. He is certain she would give up the dream on her own when she sees how dangerous the river actually is.

When Charlie decides to indulge himself with a bottle from a case of gin in the cargo Rose is horrified. She has often heard about the vices of strong spirit, but has never before witnessed it, in her previously sheltered life. With his inhibitions relaxed by the gin, Charlie confronts Rose with the impossibility of her plan. Rose is outraged and pours all the remaining gin into the river as soon as Charlie falls asleep. Resigning himself to the inevitable, Charles agrees to proceed down the river.

Charlie teaches Rose how to steer while he tends the balky engine. They survive impossible odds and difficulties, all seems lost at several stages. Only the number of pages left to be read give them any hope of continuing.

They arrive at the lake and sight the gunboat that is their goal. They have fallen in love with each other during the voyage. Each argues to keep the other safe as they prepare for the final attack. They both agree to proceed as they have so far, Rose on the helm and Charlie tending the engine and boiler. The last challenge is a huge storm that is gathering over the lake as they depart...

So why Read the Book

The author gives us far more insight into the background, motives and beliefs of the characters. In the film Charlie Allnutt appears to be a crude drunkard who is socially far beneath the cultured Rose. C S Forester takes the time to explain that they are both the products of working class families who had far more in common than they had differences. In the incident with the gin the author explains that it is the unfamiliarity with strong drink that brings out Charlie's negative reactions. He does not normally imbibe, and only does so in the face of a stressful situation.

If you are familiar with the film you should read the book to complete the story. If you are new to this story you need to learn about the hardships of the voyage and find out about the fate of Rose, Charlie and the German gunboat.

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