Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The most surprising thing about this book is that Paton wrote it in 1946.  The language is a little odd but somehow intoned the voice of an African speaker.  The two main characters are a black clergyman and a white landowner, James Jarvis, both of whom live in a small fictional village in South Africa.  The black man, Stephen Kumalo, gets word that his sister in Johannesburg is ill.  He travels there and finds that she is not physically sick but has fallen into an unhealthy lifestyle, especially for her young son.  Kumalo then begins a circuitous search for his own son, Absalom, and comes to suspect that Absalom has killed Jarvis's son Arthur, who interrupted a home invasion.  Arthur's activism for the abolition of apartheid makes his murder by a black man all the more poignant, as the "natives" have now lost an advocate and a friend. The two fathers are to some degree a microcosm of the country itself, peeling back the layers of the urban dysfunction, as their respective sons' activities come to light.  The recurring theme in this book is fear, and certainly ignorance begets fear.  The author makes a strong case for education as one of the many bricks needed to build equality and unity among the diverse populations.  One of my favorite passages is from a book that Arthur Jarvis was writing before his death:  "It was permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work.  But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work."  Arthur had great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, and in another passage, he observes, "We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under."  What's ironic about South Africa, vs. the U.S. for example, is that the whites exploited a population that vastly outnumbered them.  Somehow the fear factor is much more apparent when I consider this situation in which the whites had every reason to be nervous.  How can the few subjugate the many without repercussions?

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