Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton


Book Review
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
by Alan Paton

  I was assigned Cry, the Beloved Country my freshman year in high school, as part of freshman English.  It's very easy for a non-student/non-educator to forget the life-or-death role that schools play in the canon formation process.  The ability of a novel to become a fixture in high school or college English/Literature classes in the United States has become the most important single factor in ensuring canonical status for that work.

  Alan Paton is also one of the great one-hit wonders of 20th century literature.  He emerged form obscurity as an administrator of a provincial South African juvenile reformatory, when on a tour or Western prisons, he handed the hand written manuscript to some American friends.  Those friends were well connected and influential, and before he let the US a few weeks later he had a book deal. The book was an immediate hit in the United States, and to a less degree in the UK (and not in South Africa), the popular success paving the road for it's introduction as a "taught" book.   Along with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe it is one of the tent-poles of African literature, at least as that term is understood by western audiences.

   Cry, the Beloved Country continues to hold up as a classic,  Reading it this time, I was struck by the similarities between this book and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Stephen Kumalo, the long suffering country parson whose desire to track down his sister and son in the slums of Johannesburg forms the impetus for the narrative, is only one of a dozen memorable characters, black and white (though entirely, it should be said, male.) created by Paton as he realizes his complex vision of apartheid era South Africa.

   Multiple scenes illustrate that South African society was never unilaterally set against the interests of black Africans.  The murder at the heart of Cry, the Beloved Country: by the son of Stephen Kumalo of a well-known white reformer, proves to be a bringer of both blessings and curses to Kumalo's isolated village. The tragedy of Apartheid era South Africa is that it obscured what was some of the most progressive, hands on thinker and doers on the topic of race and economic development.  Unfortunately, many of these people were victims of the very same policies they so vociferously opposed, and over time they either moved into the shadows or actually left South Africa.
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