Book Review: Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country

Long before South Africa hosted the World Cup, Africa's most diverse country was plagued with racial inequality. Alan Paton, a South African writer of Scottish and English descent, penned Cry, the Beloved Country, which brought worldwide attention to South Africa's intensely segregated society in the 1940s. Yet even before the rise and fall of apartheid, Paton introduced a story of tolerance and understanding.

What it's about

Reverend Stephen Kumalo is among the country's black majority that is oppressed by white society. He travels from his village to the large city of Johannesburg to help his sister and find his missing adult son. As Kumalo goes from place to place to seek out his son Absalom, he (and the reader) see constantly examples of the intense divide and inequality between white and black.

The book also follows James Jarvis, the father of recently deceased racial-equality activist Arthur Jarvis. Upon learning more about his son's work, Jarvis starts to rethink the prejudices that he has garnered as a white member of South Africa's society, especially when he meets the admirable Kumalo.

The two men are connected by the fact that Kumalo's son unintentionally murdered Jarvis's son while burglarizing the activist's house. Eventually through the trial and sentencing of Kumalo's son, the two fathers become more aware of each others' worlds. Out of a series of tragic events, they develop a friendship that improves both of their lives.

While Cry, the Beloved Country definitely addresses the intense divide that existed at the time, it also stressed a sense of hope that racial tolerance and understanding would one day be possible nationwide.

Your favorite part will be...

James Jarvis sees the poverty of Kumalo's village and offers agricultural expertise in order to improve the village's farming. While a simple donation would've been kind, Jarvis's decision to introduce agricultural education is an example of how helping a society become more sustainable can be much more impactful.

The cause-y angles

Racial discrimination

Even before apartheid, South Africa was intensely segregated.

  • The reader quickly learns that blacks were only allowed limited amounts of land, thus causing immense overcrowding.
  • The lack of natural resources on these lands forced many blacks to migrate to the cities, where they were payed severely less than whites and withstood harsher living conditions.
  • Lack of opportunity and racial tension lead Kumalo's son and nephew to rob white homes while Kumalo's sister resorts to prostitution.

As Kumalo and Jarvis begin to understand one another, they perform acts of friendship and respect.

  • When Jarvis is struck by personal tragedy, Kumalo's church sends over a wreath as a symbol of condolences.
  • Inspired by his son's writings, Jarvis donates time and money to Kumalo's community, recognizing the injustice that their society suffers.
  • Jarvis's grandson embodies a symbol that a new generation will perhaps work to stop the racial inequalities of South Africa.

Poverty

  • Connected to racial discrimination, black South Africans who inhabit cities mostly live in slums where crime and violence run rampant.
  • When Jarvis seeks to help Kumalo's village, he sees the intense need for updated structures and techniques. He makes plans to build a new dam, gives money toward an improved church, and hires an expert to teach better farming methods.

Gang Violence

  • Poverty turns many of the country's black citizens to participate in gang violence. They break into white homes, which in turn make whites more nervous of their power control. As a reaction, whites oppress the black communities more and the cycle continues.

Alcohol Abuse

  • Kumalo's sister Gertrude is plagued by many struggles when he sees her, including alcoholism.

Teen Pregnancy

  • Kumalo's son Absalom met a girl, who remains unnamed, in reformatory. When Kumalo meets her, she is 16 and pregnant with Absalom's child. During the novel, Kumalo arranges for the girl to marry his son and move to the family's village.