Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country

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.

It’s the birthday of novelist Alan Paton (books by this author), born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He’s best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding that he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became

known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.

It was only after he’d left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It’s the best-selling novel in South African history and still sells about 100,000 copies a year.

copyright: The Poetry Foundation
National broadcasts of The Writer’s Almanac are supported by The Poetry Foundation, celebrating 100 years of Poetry magazine in 2012

The Writer’s Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American

Public Media.

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. GainesA 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.

Cape Point Trail

Cape Point Trail

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.

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One thought on “Cry, the Beloved Country

  1. Pingback: Where peaceful waters flow… | The Rider

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