Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
This is the story of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who lives in a remote South African village, Ndotsheni. He receives a letter from a fellow minister asking him to travel to Johannesburg to help his sister, Gertrude, who is ill. Kumalo’s son Absalom is also in Johannesburg, having traveled there many months ago. Kumalo decides to make the long journey to save his sister and son. Upon arrival, he is welcomed warmly by the minister Msimangu and Mrs. Lithebe, who works steadfastly for others as is her Christian duty.
Things are bad in Joburg. They find Gertrude, who has turned to prostitution and liquor sales to make ends meet. She has a young son. Kumalo convinces her to return to their village. As he continues to search for Absalom, he’s struck by the difficulty of life in Johannesburg. The gaping racial division is exacerbated and supported by economic disparities. Eventually, with the help of his brother John, who has done well for himself as a community leader/paster in Joburg, he finds that Absalom was in a reformatory and got a girl pregnant. He is heartbroken, but determined to find him and return home.
Meanwhile, Arthur Jarvis, a white activist for racial justice, has been murdered in his home, and Absalom is suspected by the police. Absalom confesses, but says (truthfully) that he it was an accident, and there were two other boys with him, including John’s son. Arthur’s father James, a prominent white farmer, reads his son’s activist manuscripts that call for racial equality, and he and Kumalo meet accidentally, forming a strange bond.
The rest of the story goes exactly how you think it will go, and that’s the point – there’s no way things can truly be set right in apartheid. There’s no way that justice can or will be served in a corrupt state. There’s no bringing back the dead. Profound grief courses through the book – loss of the old tribal structure, loss of innocence, loss of life. But there is hope too. In Mrs. Lithebe’s constant care for the weary, in James Jarvis’ decision to help Ndotsheni, in the love that Absalom’s new wife adopts Ndotsheni and moves happily in with Kumalo and his wife. The hope is love. Individuals can choose to love, actively, graciously, generously.
We know how this story goes, though. Apartheid happened, and it’s ugly. But the message is still true and clear, although the politics are slightly dated. In the book I just reviewed, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen quotes James Baldwin’s solution to our vast racial divide: love. She dismisses it as ridiculous at first–love will save the world? really?–but then over the course of her travels realizes what he means. Only love can make us care just as much about someone else as we care about ourselves. This book isn’t so explicit, but the characters are so real, and their love feels so hard and true and redemptive. It felt like another way to say the same thing.
There’s a certain feeling of contemplation and profundity in Paton’s style that reminds me a lot of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The loving descriptions of the landscapes, the echoes of nature’s rhythms, and the powerful internality of the characters…the book feels nourishing. It feels like faith.