Sunday, January 31, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks (Week 4): Cry, the Beloved Country

I'd heard about this book for years but had never read it.  I even bought it for my dh, based on Gladys Hunt's review in her excellent book Honey for a Woman's Heart, wherein she cites this as one of her favorite novels.  Dh read it and liked it, and still I read other things.  Until last week.

Published in 1948, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country was "like a shot heard round the world" (Hunt, p.53).  The story of two South African fathers, black pastor Reverend Stephen Kumalo and white farmer Mr. Jarvis, whose sons -- their only children -- die, this novel explores how we are all victims of racial injustice.

I was amazed at how successfully Paton, a white South African, depicted each father's story.  The introductory material explained how Paton, of British descent, worked as supervisor at Deipkloof, a large reform "school" for black boys aged nine to twenty-one and transformed this prison into a successful school and true reformatory.  He also worked for the liberal cause and wrote many articles, just like Arthur Jarvis in the novel, pointing to the disappearance of tribal and traditional family bonds within the native population as the underlying cause of crime in South Africa.  Paton's experience working in both communities enabled him to give honest voice to all his characters.

Two things bothered me about the novel, one of which was technical:  Paton utilized the introductory dash to mark dialogue, as opposed to quotation marks.  If the dialogue occurs within a paragraph, it is often difficult to distinguish from narrative comment.  Many times, I had to re-read portions to make sure what I'd read was, in fact, dialogue.  Since I am a fast reader, I found this distracting and irritating.  But it in no way dimmed my overall deep appreciation of the novel.  In fact, it may have slowed me down, made me consider more deeply, introduced an impediment to my reading speed in such a way that I paid more attention than I may have done otherwise.  Secondly, I wished that Paton had begun the story earlier in time, when Absolom Kumalo leaves his native village for the metropolis of Johannesburg, the first step in his path to destruction.  As it is, the story begins in medias res -- "in the middle of affairs" -- just like Greek and Roman epic poetry.  This is fitting, since some of Paton's writing reads like poetry.

Gladys Hunt deems Cry, the Beloved Country a "heart-breaking story of grace and forgiveness," and I concur.  This is a story that will stay with me for a long time.

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