Monday, November 7, 2011

The Power of One

Title: The Power of One
Author: Bryce Courtenay
List: #183 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Definitely.

This novel is magnificent. There really is no other way to say it. Anything I write will not come close to describing how absolutely beautiful, fantastic, and uplifting this novel is.

My heart melted from the very first chapters where the author painstakingly described the plight of poor little 5-year-old Peekay trying to blend in as the only English boy at a Boer boarding school in late 1930s South Africa. Peekay starts at the school the year war is declared in Europe, and he bears the brunt of the older boys’ approval of Hitler and hate of the English. Peekay’s anguish is tangible and I wanted nothing more than to wrap this little boy in my arms to make him feel better.

Fortunately for little Peekay, he does not have to return to another year of boarding school. Instead, his grandfather has sold the family farm and moved across country, and Peekay will rejoin his mother and grandfather after a two-day solo train trip. This train trip changes Peekay’s life, and the author touchingly describes how a kind-hearted train guard and boxer takes Peekay under his wing, feeds him, makes sure he gets new shoes that fit, and introduces him to boxing and the dream of becoming Welterweight Champion of the World.

The lesson the train guard teaches Peekay, “First with your head, then with your heart,” as well as the introduction to boxing, shape Peekay’s future and the rest of the novel. However, this is not a novel about boxing. Instead, it is a novel about finding an individual place in the world, developing self-awareness and self-confidence, and standing up for one’s beliefs.

It is also a novel about valuing everyone, regardless of background or skin color. After his rough introduction to Boer culture and language at his first boarding school, Peekay develops a fluency in Afrikaans, thereby forging bonds across South Africa’s two white cultures. His later command of the language of boxing serves a similar purpose. Peekay also has a deep appreciation for black culture and language. He learned Zulu at the breast of his Zulu wet nurse and nanny, and picked up two other native languages from other household servants. He never hesitates to communicate with each individual in his or her own language, and, most importantly, he never looks down on anyone for his or her ethnicity. Instead, Peekay treats everyone with kindness and respect and seeks to help those he feels deserve more. In this way, his reputation among “The People” as a spiritual chief is born and he feels their support and presence throughout his life.

Through a powerful command of tone and language, the author conveys a love of South Africa and its people, and creates a strong bond between the reader and Peekay. Peekay meets a wide variety of interesting and rich characters that influence him, teach him, and help him rise to his full potential. Most notable among these is Doc, a professor of music and cactus enthusiast and expert, who really challenges Peekay to excel, and who, despite a wide disparity in age, becomes Peekay’s best friend and mentor.

Reading this novel was like diving into Peekay’s world, seeing what he was seeing, and feeling what he was feeling. It was one of those novels where I wanted there to be a sequel because I didn’t want it to end, but where a sequel might have ruined the majesty of the work. In my opinion, this novel should be much higher on the BBC’s list and is a must read for everyone. I cannot wait until I have time to immerse myself in another Bryce Courtenay novel.

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