Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Cry, The Beloved Country

Every now and then I get the urge to step back from works of fantasy and science fiction and read something out of my usual comfort zone.  Often, these breaks from the norm can be a path to discovery for me, and help me recharge my reading batteries.  It's been a while since my last SF/F getaway, so I figured a little recharge was in order. Cry, The Beloved Country seemed like just the book to help me switch things up.

Set during 1948 in South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country is a novel about a black man's country under white man's law.  The book follows Stephen Kumalo, a catholic priest from a small rural village.  Early on, Kumalo receives a letter from another priest in Johannesburg explaining that Kumalo's sister is sick and in need of his help. Kumalo rounds up his life savings, and travels to Johannesburg to help his sister, and to find his son, who had left for Johannesburg some time ago to find the very same sister, but has never returned, and no longer writes.

When Kumalo arrives in the city, he finds himself for the first time, in a bustling urban setting that he can barely comprehend or function in. However, with the help of Msimangu, the priest who summoned him to Johannesburg, he not only gets his bearings, and beings his mission of reconnecting with his family.

Way back when I bought Cry, The Beloved Country, my friend who recommended it to me said that it reminded him a lot of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  That statement was always faintly echoing in the back of my head while I was reading through this book.  In some ways, the two novels share a connection. Helplessness and devastation in the face of something completely out of the protagonist's control is definitely a theme both books share.  However, I didn't really find that my reading of Cry, The Beloved Country had me hearkening back to Grapes of Wrath very often. Instead, I found that it was a book that stands out as an almost wholly unique reading experience for me.

The most interesting quality of the book for me was how Paton explored the theme of racial segregation and injustice in the early days of apartheid South Africa.  Paton manages to explore this theme from multiple angles and shows the many layers of such a system while remaining objective and unbiased.  He explores perspectives on "native crime", the many social issues that are resultant thanks to the break down of the tribal structure, degradation and exploitation of the land and it's resources, and the flight from rural areas into over-crowded urban centers.

On the one hand, it was interesting to read about those topics, but it was also pretty upsetting to see that many of those same topics are still issues, with slightly different spins, that are prevalent today not only in South Africa, but here in the United States, and every other part of the world.  No matter what, this is a novel that forces the reader to engage, to wonder, to reflect, and to consider the ways of the world, both the fucked up and the wonderful.  I'm not gonna lie, Cry, The Beloved Country is a sad story, but there's beauty in that sadness.

Cry, The Beloved Country isn't just a book that explores themes.  It has a wonderful, and heartbreaking story at it's core too.  Kumalo is not a character that I share many commonalities with, but I had no problem connecting with him and his travails because he so wonderfully embodies the human spirit.  His strength, wisdom and unique experience is one that everyone can learn from, and I feel like I'm a better person for having known him just through the pages of this book.

Not bad for a fictional character, eh?

If you want to talk about having a "reading experience" this is certainly an experience. I feel like I gained insight, and perspective on topics that are incredibly relevant in my every day life.  This one is an all around great read for sure. So the next time you find yourself in need of a break from your usual reading fare...why not give this one a go?

Grade: A

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