Cry, the Beloved Country
By Alan Paton
Paperback: 316 pages
Published: November 25, 2003, by Scribner (first published 1948)
Setting: South Africa
Literary Awards: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (1949)
Summary: Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
This is a classic, written by a white South African about a time before apartheid. Two fathers, one white, one black and their sons. It is stylistically unusual. Quotes are not used, for example. Conversation is indicated by leading dashes. Also the speech is quite formal most of the time, which conveys some of the culture of the place, I expect. Dark forces are abroad, but hope shows its face here as well, as there are leaders trying to prevent a descent into the madness to come. Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absolom are the focus. Absolom, as an adult, leaves to go to the big city, Jo’burg. He falls in with a bad crowd and is involved in a robbery. He unintentionally shoots a man who surprises them. The man, an idealistic white, is the son of Kumalo’s neighbor out in the country. Kumalo goes in search of his missing son, only to find him, and this horror, at the same time. Characters are portrayed sympathetically, white and black. There is much shared fatherly pain, much humanity here. It is indeed a classic.
I can’t say enough about this book. It is lyrically written, reads almost like an epic out of Ireland. The dialog between characters is straightforward, and the book manages to give you a glimpse of Apartheid S. Africa, from the richest people, to the poor urban laborers, to the criminals, to the peaceful rural farmers trying to maintain their land after many years of neglect. This is a classic that I have read probably 3 or 4 times. My copy is beat to hell, but readable.
… this book is excellent. More than a story of racial inequality, social problems, and injustice (which is what I remember about the plot from high school), this is first and foremost a story of forgiveness and hope.
There are many reasons for South Africa, the country commanded to “cry” in the title, to do just that: poverty and famine drive many to choose paths that are less than admirable, sometimes immoral. And there and many reasons for the main character, a humble priest from a rural Zulu tribe, to give up his faith in both God and humanity — and yet throughout the story there is a calm sense of hope for the future. Stephen Kumalo meets good men along his tragic journey that give hope to him and to the country as a whole: friends, family, and even one who should be his deepest enemy. And Kumalo himself is one to be emulated: for his meekness and gratitude, for his acceptance of trials, for his charity, and even for his occasional human-ness but then sincerely repentant nature. To enjoy a book, I have to have a main character to at the least empathize with — Kumalo is one that I not only appreciate but admire.
And the writing is downright lyrical in some places. It’s easy to see why it’s a modern classic.
Being awakened to the injustices of prejudice and poverty is all right, but this book does more than that—it inspires hope in the midst of hard times. A book to add to my long list of favorites.