June 2002

Jen Crispin

hundred books

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

I couldn't possibly have made a better choice to follow Things Fall Apart with than Cry, The Beloved Country. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. I did know that both books were written by Africans, and were in no small part about Africa itself. But I wasn't even that farsighted when I picked Cry, The Beloved Country off of the shelf. This next book decision was as random as most others. Cry was simply the first book I saw that I knew was on the 100 books list. Thus, by happy coincidence, I found myself further immersed in the future of the world I had just left.

In Things Fall Apart, the first death tolls for tribal life in Africa have just begun. In Cry, the Beloved Country, the funeral has long been over, and people are searching, grasping, for anything to take its place. As the land loses its ability to feed people, it also loses its ability to hold them. Men are drawn to the mines where there is work, and to the city of Johannesburg where there is the promise of something new, and they soon stop writing the ones they had loved back home. The Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo loses a brother to the city, and his brother-in-law to the mines. When his sister goes to the city to find her husband, she also disappears. His son soon follows. Finally the Reverend Kumalo receives a letter advising him of his sister's ill health, and he embarks on a quest to Johannesburg, to retrieve and rebuild his family.

Of course quests are never easy. And there really is something new going on in Johannesburg, something that no one has the ability to explain in words. But Alan Paton draws an immense, sweeping picture of a city in turmoil. It is a city where natives who are boycotting the buses for high fares walk miles to and from work each day -- often having just a few hours of sleep before they must wake and start the long trek again. It is a city where all the members of the ruling class agree that they are in a terrible crisis, but none can agree on what to do about it. It is a city where it is illegal to give a walking bus boycotter a ride to work, yet hundreds do it anyway. Kumalo witnesses both horrible cruelty and heart-breaking kindness while he searches the city for answers, and the reading this book, I felt the full force of both.

Had Cry, the Beloved Country only been about the search of one man for his family and his journey to and from Johannesburg, it still would have been a magnificent book. I was truly surprised when the book did not end at Kumalo's safe return home. Instead of ending at the obvious place, Paton chose that time to broaden the book's scope. The end result is a feeling of hope -- a much better place to leave off than the despair of Things Fall Apart. Where it is possible, I would always recommend these two books to be read together as a pair. If Things tears you apart, Cry will start to put you back together.