Even though I have been immersed in the study of African history for over three years nowin particular, South African history I just read Alan Patons “Cry, the Beloved Country” last week.
Written in 1948, just as the country was entering over 40 years of apartheid rule, it now seems like a strangely prophetic book. By prophetic, I do not mean that it foretold the future; rather, it judged the nation of South Africa and explained that extraordinary measures of grace were needed for healing. This is, in fact, exactly what mystified the world about South Africas peaceful transition from apartheid to democratic rule in the early 90s. Grace is not what we expect to see when a nation has been judged as harshly as South Africa was judged, when the government of a nation has committed the acts of evil that the government of South Africa committed. Yet grace was given, and “Cry, the Beloved Country” is one more example of that grace.
The plot is structured around a black minister, Stephen Kumalo, who goes to Johannesburg to seek his missing son Absalom and rescue his sister from prostitution. In Johannesburg, he learns his son has murdered a white activist, the son of a white landowner named Jarvis who comes from the same rural area as Kumalo and his son. Paton carefully demonstrates how urban life devastates the African family and the individual (which he calls breaking the tribe).
Patton offers no excuses for young Absalom Kumalos actions, but the novel explains how living conditions in the city and the political climate of the nation created desperate young African men who had few choices besides crime. (Certainly, no lucrative choices besides crime.) What sets this novel apart then is how the white landowner Jarvis becomes an activist in his own way, doing what he can to change the rural area where he lives so that Africans would not need to leave in order to live. It is as though his son had charged him from beyond the grave to bring good out of evil.
Paton was a devoted Christian and his plot revolves around the idea inherent in the Bible verse, All things work together for good for those who love him [God] and are called according to his purpose. Cry, the Beloved Country was an instant bestseller, and may be the best known novel to emerge out of South Africa.
Though it was a book I knew I needed to read eventually, it was the childrens author Katherine Patterson who finally convinced me I should read it. In her book on writing for children, The Invisible Child, she describes reading it when she was 16 and recognizing herself in those pages. Reading a great novel is a conversion experience, she says. We are never quite the same afterward (Patterson, 111).
Patterson was an American, white, the daughter of missionaries who raised her in China. Chinese was her first language. Why would someone like Patterson identify so strongly with these characters? Who did she identify with, she asks herself. The murdered activist? The black minister? The white landowner? The murderer? She recognized the absurdity of her connection to the book, on the face of it. Nevertheless, Patterson said that the book made her see herself in a new way. I could not pretend innocence or try to throw blame elsewhere. I knew when I had finished this book that I had met the enemy and it was myself I was shattered by my discovery, but the very devastation made a kind of healing and growth possible (178).
Patterson describes a very personal experience, but the book has had a similar effect on hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
So far, my description of Patons book sounds very much like a tent-house revival meeting, but I dont intend for it to be like that. We use religious words to describe the deep things that affect us, whether those deep things are strictly religious or not because words like prophetic, conversion, sacred and holy convey the spiritual significance that we do not trust to ordinary words. (And yet ordinary words should also be sacred and holy, if we recognize the 20th centurys common wisdom that separating the secular and sacred is unhealthy, especially in an African context where there has historically been little separation of the two spheres of life.)
Cry, the Beloved Country is historical in a dual sense. First, it effectively and powerfully portrays a historical situation on the continent of Africa. Second, the book itself is historical because of the effect it had on three generations of Europeans, Americans, and South Africans, who took the books theme to heart in a way that historical, sociological, political, and economic facts never could.