Standard in any USA curriculum is Harper Lee’s beautiful coming of age novel To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring the quintessential naïve narrator, Scott Finch, who relates the painful details of a Southern society defined by race and class. South Africa has its own version of this story in Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (1989), which features the equally enduring Peekay, whom readers come to know during his fifth year through his seventeenth. As with Scout, Peekay is an observer to a world marred by racism and violence, but also punctuated with moments of pure wonder.
Readers never truly know Peekay’s real name. He adopts a version of his boarding school nickname Pisskopf as a badge of honor when he survives his year away from home and hearth when just kindergarten age as the sole English boy in a school of Afrikaners. Given that it is only the 1930s, the memory of defeat by the Anglos in the Boer War is still fresh in his schoolmates’ minds. To give them their due, the Anglos found victory through creating what were termed the first concentration camps, filled with the women and children of the Boer families. Plague and disease killed a good many of them, and the next generation of boys never forgot them or the grandparents who died in the war. The Afrikaners left the coast and burrowed into the interior, establishing farms. The result for the small English boy is hazing at the hands of his older classmates, one particularly loathsome, The Judge, who orchestrates late night shower punishments where Peekay is pissed on–hence the nickname.
Peekay is sent to this school when his mother, as fragile emotionally as her mother had been before her, has a breakdown. Somehow during that year she “finds Christ,” and is “cured” under the spell of an evangelical group, but it does mean that the lad can escape the school, its hazing, and complicit teachers. The traumatic year is followed by the discovery of a neighbor, “Doc,” a German musician-botanist and former professor, who becomes his teacher and mentor. Although Peekay attends a regular school—and is promoted several grades—his primary education comes from this sad and rather mysterious gentleman with whom he roams the hills, seeking out interesting cactus and succulents for Doc’s garden and learning their Latin names.
A gifted learner, Peekay speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Shangaan, the latter two local tribal languages. His beloved Nanny, a native, is torn away from him when she refuses to “come to Jesus.” She is also responsible for bringing a local shaman to Peekay to help him conquer bedwetting. Peekay never forgives his mother for turning away Nanny, who has been more a mother to him than his biological mother.
Another major influence on Peekay is a train conductor he meets en route from the Afrikaans school to his new home. Hoppie Groenewald seems to divine that the little boy has had a difficult year at the school and treats him with respect, even having the lad accompany him to a boxing match between trains that features Hoppie and a much heavier opponent. In the brief 24 hours that Peekay spends with this man, yet another important mentor, he learns about “the power of one” and acquires a burning desire to be the welterweight champion of the world, a goal that stays with him throughout the novel.
Peekay gets the chance to have boxing lessons from the warders—guards—at the prison that is established in their town, and which has an unlikely inmate, Doc, who failed to register as an “alien” at the beginning of World War II. Peekay’s pluck get him admitted to the prison on a regular basis, where he rises through diligence to become a very fine boxer, even though only 11 years of age.
It is here that the Tom Robinson of Mockingbird, an innocent unfairly condemned, is found in the character of Geel Piet, a native prisoner, who is an excellent coach. Peekay grows to love him, too, and even the Afrikaans boxing trainers admire his skill. When he is tortured and killed by a sadistic guard (and, frankly, even the likable prison staff members are racists), Geel is found by Peekay, yet another cruel lesson on growing up. Keep in mind that at this time in history, South Africa’s ruling party is Anglo; it won’t be until after WWII that the National Party comes to power and apartheid is instituted.
The novel follows Peekay’s success in both boxing ring and classroom as he wins a scholarship to a prestigious boys’ school and falls in with his first same-age chum, Morrie (called Hymie in the South African version), who is rich and Jewish. Again, Peekay is tutored in life skills that benefit him. That last “book” of the novel sees Peekay in an unlikely setting, working in a mine—by choice—and at first, this turn in the plot does not make sense, but it is important in wrapping up Peekay’s story.
A film version of the novel was produced in 1992 (John Avildsen, director), and is notable for its plot changes, including a girlfriend for Peekay, as well as the dramatic introduction of the current reigning James Bond, Daniel Craig.
When I quizzed the Anglo safari guides about The Power of One, they were uniformly enthusiastic about it being a “good read,” some of them having read it during school days. I concur. This version of the book numbers slightly over 500 pages; there is a “young adult” version of the book at 387 pages. That condensed version might be appropriate for, say, a 6th grader or advanced younger reader, but most children have proven with the Harry Potter series that a lengthy book is not insurmountable. Peekay’s overwhelming interest in boxing may seem at odds with his scholastic brilliance to some readers, and there are some graphic details, particularly in the treatment of Africans.
The sequel to this novel is Tandia (1992), which focuses initially on a mixed race young woman who is brutalized by the South African police. Eventually, she meets Peekay and his friend Morrie/Hymie at Oxford. Courtenay (1933-2012) was a prolific and popular writer, who moved to Australia, where he is considered one of its best authors.
Without a doubt, Peekay’s story was the most enjoyable entry in my Road Works list for South Africa. The Power of One demonstrates without question the power of words.