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The African Queen (1935)
C. S. Forester is well remembered for his Horatio Hornblower series (see Orrin's review), which has won renewed popularity with the excellent A & E movie versions and a coattail effect from the cult status of Patrick O'Brien's best-selling Aubrey and Maturin books. However, few today recall that he wrote the original novel upon which John Huston based the great Bogart and Hepburn film, The African Queen. The film then spawned both Peter Viertel's excellent roman-a-clef novel, White Hunter, Black Heart (1953) and the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, and a Katherine Hepburn memoir about the making of the original movie. Not a bad track record.
The plot of the book will be familiar to anyone who's seen Huston's classic film; his adaptation is quite faithful. The setting is German Central Africa in 1914. At the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, the local German commander has rounded up the local natives, effectively closing the Christian mission run by the Reverend Samuel Sayer. This proves to be a fatal blow to the Reverend and his spinster sister, Rose Sayer, is left on her own. She hitches a ride down the Ulanga River with a little cockney river rat, Charlie Allnutt, aboard his rickety launch, the African Queen.
Rose, who had spent her whole life deferring to her pious brother, finds her sudden freedom to be quite exhilarating. Despite Charlie's feeble protestations, she determines to revenge Samuel by crashing the explosives laden Queen into the German police steamer, Konigin Luise, which is the only ship of any size in the region and so completely dominates Lake Wittelsbach, making British invasion extremely difficult. Meanwhile, just getting the Queen downstream to the Lake requires them to face the guns of a local fort, treacherous currents, raging rapids, voracious insects, unfriendly hippopotami, leeches, malaria, near impenetrable vegetation, and a host of mechanical problems.
United in common cause, these two very different characters go from low level hostility to grudging mutual dependence to helpless love. Perhaps the best aspect of the book, the one that really differentiates it from the movie, is Forester's brutal honesty about the quality of their romance. Rose is quite inured to the service of deeply flawed men like her brother and father :
So Rose did not look for perfection in the man she
loved. She took it for granted that she would
Nor does Charlie think he's stumbled into one of history's great romances :
Allnutt was very happy too. Whatever he might
do in the heat of passion, his need was just as
There's an unusual frankness to this that you don't often find in such stories and the book ends on a wistful note that's equally refreshing :
So they left the Lakes and began the long journey
to Matadi and marriage. Whether or not they
This richly nuanced relationship adds to the enjoyment of the thrilling adventure tale and makes for a terrific read.
-C. S. Forester, Storyteller (by his son)
-The Unofficial Horatio Hornblower Home Pages (info on chronolgy, plot summaries, etc.)
-Hornblower Bibliography (American Library Assoc.)
-Ha - H'm. The Hornblower Page
-A& E Hornblower Book Club
Other recommended books by C.S. Forester: