Book Review: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for South Africa.  This is probably the most famous South African novel and maybe too obvious a choice, especially since I try to read the most contemporary books possible.  This novel actually precedes apartheid as well as the Rainbow Nation that emerged in the 1990s that created a freer but still struggling nation that is dealing with things like the scourge of AIDS.  Yet, I’d always meant to read Cry, The Beloved Country, and figured now is as good at time as any.  Sadly,  many of the issues of the novel such as impoverished shanty towns, racial strife, and the mining economy are still current in contemporary South Africa.

The novel tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black priest from rural Natal who goes to Johannesburg because he hears news that his sister is ill and hasn’t heard from his son at all.  When he gets to the big city he finds out that in fact his sister is a prostitute and an alcoholic, and that his son has impregnated a young woman.  Worse yet, when Kumalo finds his son Absalom it is because the young man is in jail for killing a white man in bungled burglary.

Paralleling Kumalo’s story is that of a wealth white man named Jarvis who lives in the same region and has lost touch with his political activist son Arthur.  Sadly, Arthur is the man killed by Absalom, ironically when he was writing an essay on how dissolving the tribes, splitting families, and forcing laborers to live in shanty towns are at the root of the “native crime” problem.

Unexpectedly, the murder brings the two fathers together.  Inspired by his son’s writings, Jarvis contributes to building a dam and farming infrastructure in Kumalo’s parish.  While detailing the grim realities of poverty, exploitation and racism, Cry, The Beloved Country is a book of hope and reconciliation.  Throughout the novel, South African’s of both African and European background perform the small acts to help their fellow country men, the things that can bring about change in the future.

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