Carol Campbell has previously written about the Karretjiemense of the Karoo in her books My Children Have Faces and Esther’s House. The stories are a social comment on the Karretjiemense, who are a marginalised people living endlessly nomadic, rootless lives, on the brink of total poverty. They trek from place to place looking for odd job and grazing for their livestock. In The Tortoise Cried Its Only Tear, she adds a stronger element of folktale and myth, which enriches the portrayal of these people, who have been the Karoo’s gypsies for many years.
The story is set in the area surrounding Prince Albert and involves Siena, determined to achieve a decent education and a better life; Boetie, a wild, neglected child whose friendship with Siena is his only solace; and Kriekie, the son of a now-vanished prostitute, who is helped attend primary school by a well-intentioned neighbour. Their lives; their relationships with each other and with their community, is set against the backdrop of the timeless Karoo. Campbell explores how a single, small act of kindness can transform a life, and by implication other, connected lives – until a whole community can feel the ripple effect of that single gesture. And likewise, how one violent act can change a community. The story also blends myth into social fabric in the form of the tortoise, a creature revered by Siena’s father, because it holds the wisdom of the land in its eyes. When a tortoise dies, it sheds a single tear. This is a poetic image of momentous, yet fleeting life against timeless land. This theme carried out in the generations of lives of its inhabitants.