The Writer’s Almanac is a wonderful daily round-up of literary happenings by date plus a single poem—sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. I like to start my day by listening to Garrison Keillor’s sonorous voice. When I heard this entry on January 11, I knew I had to save it for my upcoming trip to South Africa.
Given its popularity, most readers are probably already familiar with this landmark novel that tells the story of two men, one of them a poor black priest and the other the wealthy landowner in the community. They come together tragically when their two sons have a fatal encounter.
For those r
eaders unfamiliar with the story, it may seem reminiscent of the film Dead Man Walking, which relates the story of a nun who ministers to a condemned prisoner but also invokes the heartbreak of his two victims. Or it may be seen as similar to Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, about a condemned man who finds redemption through becoming literate.
The message of the novel is contained in the writings of the landowner’s son, who is an advocate for the Natives of South Africa; his essay show clearly the causes for violent actions that leave Johannesburg terrorized and locked behind gated communities. The novel itself is lyrical with loving descriptions of the countryside and realistic depictions of the city. A bus boycott is in effect when the priest travels to Johannesburg—much like the boycott in the Southern USA when black travelers walked great distances to protest.
As the Almanac entry suggests, the story behind the novel is fascinating in itself, a book written in a short time to great triumph. Paton uses the same structure to begin part one—which introduces the priest—as he does in part two to depict the landowner, demonstrating how each is a part of the land. Cry, South A
frica. Cry the Beloved Country. Although this 1949 novel is a powerful statement for desegregation and humane treatment of all, in one sense, it failed, as apartheid persisted for many more years.