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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, February 3, 2017

How Alan Paton defies convention and earns out engagement in Cry, the Beloved Country

The first section of Alan Paton's 1948 classic, Cry, the Beloved Country (a really unusual title, if you think about it: if it's a direct address, why the article "the"?) builds toward one final disaster in the life of Kumulo, the village priest from the South African countryside who travels to Johannesburg to deal w/ several family crises: bringing aid to his sick sister, and trying to find his son who has lost contact for many years. He embarks on an Odyssey through the streets, slums, and shanty-towns in and near J-Burg, hearing reports that his son is a criminal; at last he learns that his son, along with 2 others young men (one of whom is his nephew, son of the politician brother, John), robbing the house of a white South African (who, to make matters more complex, had been a great friend of the black South Africans), panics and shoots the man to death. With great help from two local priests, Kumulo finds a respected white lawyer to take on the case of his son. This section brings a bi of drama, if not melodrama, into the ambling plot of this story, which has up to this point been a tour, that we see through Kumulo's village eyes, of the horrors and inequities in South Africa at the time (maybe still, in different ways). Paton deserves a lot of credit for many things: shining a harsh light on these inequities, little know to the world at large at that time, as well as doing so with great honesty: Kumulo's son is no angel, and the people he has lived with - notably the young woman who will bear his child - are difficult and complex people as well. Many authors might have made the pregnant girlfriend a Madonna figure, but Paton shows us that she has led a troubled and far-from-saintly life. Similarly, the young white man who runs a reform school for delinquent black youth (a job similar to Paton's) is deeply flawed - bursting out in anger and Kumulo when he learns of the murder charge (he later apologizes and seeks Kumulo's pardon). These are small touches, but they make the novel less tendentious and more nuanced, complex, and engaging.

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