In a nutshell:
Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of an elderly minister, Rev. Stephen Kumalo, who travels from his drought-stricken Zulu village to Johannesburg, the city that has swallowed up his sister, his son and most of the young people of the country villages. It is also the story of racial oppression in all its complex layers, described through the lens of Kumalo’s quest.
I’ve known of Paton’s novel since I was in high school, but never had much interest in reading it, because I had this suspicion that it was a classic solely because it was “important” at the time of its publication. I’m so glad, then, that my cousin gave it to me for my birthday last year, so I could realize that it is a classic not for being a time capsule, but because much of it is timeless.
Cry, The Beloved Country starts off with a somewhat flowery, poetic introduction that made me wary, but once Rev. Kumalo reaches Johannesburg, the story really picks up and the poetic sections felt more organic. Each character that Kumalo meets along his search for his family illuminates an aspect of the unjust situation in South Africa. But this isn’t a polemic screed. Through his characters, Paton captures a discussion, rather than a monologue, of how to understand, even improve, the state of South Africa.
It is amazing that so much of what Paton writes is still relevant to today’s discussion of racial injustice.
She put the paper down on the table, and showed the other women the headlines. ANOTHER MURDER TRAGEDY IN CITY. EUROPEAN HOUSEHOLDER SHOT DEAD BY NATIVE HOUSEBREAKER.
They were shocked. These were the headlines that men feared in these days. Householders feared them, and their wives feared them. All those who worked for South Africa feared them. All law-abiding black men feared them. Some people were urging the newspapers to drop the word native from their headlines, others found it hard to know what the hiding of the painful truth would do.
Aren’t we still having this moment? Where an act of crime is used to harden, even justify, existing lines of prejudice? Where we grow impatient with the media’s tendency to simplistically characterize the news with its choice of labels?
Paton not only has a keen eye for the nuances of racial oppression, but he also takes on economic injustice, mainly in the form of the South African mines, but written in such a way to apply to many arenas of economic exploitation.
As insightful as the novel is in racial matters, the book was clumsier with the status of women. Kumalo is harsh to a young teenaged girl because she has had many “boyfriends”. He soon repents of his harshness, but the book struck me as a little blind to systemic sexual and economic oppression of women. It’s a blindness I have seen before in otherwise progressive mid-century writing.
Overall, I greatly valued the resonance of the novel’s themes of injustice, but in saying that, I don’t want to downplay the characters and the story. In Stephen Kumalo, Paton has created a good man, but not a saintly one, and he is the heart of the novel. Even while he is on a road of suffering, he still finds new friendships and new family in Johannesburg.
It’s ultimately a story that reaches toward the hope of reconciliation for a small set of characters, even while acknowledging their pain, even while acknowledging the majority of South Africa is not reconciled. It is scary that Paton saw the situation so clearly, and that the book was so popular, but that apartheid didn’t end in South Africa until the 1990’s.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
BookLust – “Paton is one of those rare people who can write a story populated by flawed characters without passing judgment; rather, he makes the reader see just how much suffering a person goes through, and just how much impact a small kindness can have.”
Vulpes Libres – “The line that has been running through my mind from these writings has been ‘We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under’. And, despite this book being written in 1948, for me, this resonates with modern ‘developed’ society.”
Worthwhile Books – “Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that comes close to describing this mysterious relationship between suffering and grace in our world.”