Cry the Beloved Country


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Set against a background of apartheid, this is the story of Kumalo, an elderly clergyman who goes to Johannesburg in search of his son.

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Nov 28, 2020

Discovering A Classic Novel

Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1948) somehow escaped me over the years. Paton's novel was already a staple on high school reading lists when I was in school, and I tend to avoid such books. A glance at some of the many reviews here on Amazon suggests that the book continues to be force-fed to students, a situation that discourages appreciative reading. When our book group selected the novel, I became an initially reluctant reader. But I soon realized I had missed a great deal in not reading this book.

Set in South Africa in 1948, Paton's novel examines race relations in that troubled country just before the formal institution of apartheid. The primary character is an elderly Zulu minister, Stephen Kumalo who lives and tends to his congregation in a poor farming community which has depleted its soil by poor farming practices on hills. Steven's brother John, his sister Gertrude and his only son Absolom have left the homestead to try to find their ways in Johannesburg. When Steven receives a message that his sister is in desperate straits, he undertakes the lengthy, expensive rail journey to Johannesburg in search of his family. Steven finds each of the three, and the novel tells their stories. The book develops primarily around Absolom who has become a troubled, delinquent young man. Absolom is arrested and tried for the murder of a young white man, Arthur Jarvis. Arthur's father, James, is a wealthy landholder and near-neighbor of Stephen Kumalo. During the trial of Stephen's son, the two men become close. In his life, Arthur had studied closely South Africa's racial situation and had written and spoken out eloquently for change. With his son's death, the novel shows how James, who had been apathetic on the issue at best, came to understand and share the convictions of his son.

"Cry, the Beloved Country" is immeasurably more than a polemic against racism in South Africa. In my belated reading of the book, I tried to think of how the work transcended its time and place to become a convincing work of art. Here are some of my ideas. The writing style of the book in its lyricism, solemnity, repetition, and detail frequently is more akin to poetry than to fictional narrative. The tone of the book is sad and thoughtful much more than it is critical. Paton seems less inclined to blame any party for the origins of racism in South Africa than he is to understand. He explores how racism developed and he examines the fears of all the participants in the system. The aim is not to condemn but to understand, forgive, and change.

There are beautiful portrayals of South Africa in all its aspects, from the small native communes and compounds to the mines to the metropolis of Johannesburg. The book celebrates reading and the life of the mind primarily through Arthur Jarvis, whose library and thought Paton explores in depth. Abraham Lincoln receives great and devoted attention in this book, showing the universal appeal of this great American president.

More than the portrayal of an unjust social system or the depiction of a complex country, "Cry the Beloved Country" is a religious work. Few, if any characters in this story are entirely evil. Although shown as a person with flaws and a tendency to hurt others, Stephen Kumalo emerges as a committed Christian minister to his people. When he travels to Johannesburg, he meets several other ministers and church officials who, contrary to much literature, are portrayed selflessly and positively.

Several other characters, including a lawyer who defends Stephen's son pro bono ("pro deo"), and a native landlady are shown as unselfish, well-meaning and noble. The book tells its story of hope, forgiveness, and correction of injustice without derogating.

On my reading, I found "Cry, the Beloved Country" in large part a religious novel of an unusual and profound spirit in the way it approached its themes. I was drawn by the goodness and sincerity of the characters. The book helps show what religion, Christianity in particular, can be at its best in a troubled time. Forgiveness and not condemnation is the overriding theme of the book. I was grateful to take the opportunity to read Paton's novel at last.

Robin Friedman

Judith H

Dec 7, 2014

Cry the Beloved Country

One of the best books about Africa I have ever read. The father depicted in the story is so remarkable and so real. I will never tire of this book and can easily read it over and over. It is a classic!

Robert P

Nov 15, 2012

Tough Read.

I stuck with it till the end, even though there wasn't anything to cheer about. Very slow pacing by modern standards, making it hard to cut through. I didn't get a payoff at the end, like I've gotten with other classics such as Hemingway's. Still, the realism may have made it worth it.


Aug 13, 2009

Thought provoking

Very touching and well written. There seemed to me to be no bias, both sides of a sad situation were covered so nicely.


Jun 9, 2007


I was forced to read this book in a high school social studies class and hated every line of it. The dialog, of which there is a substantial amount, is not accompanied by any sort of punctuation or even reference to which character is speaking, making it a difficult story to follow. The Story isn't all that great either, so, really, trying to follow along with the dialog was the least of my problems.

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