Cry, the Beloved Country

Somewhere in high school both Kris and I read Alan Paton’s famous Cry, the Beloved Country, but it was so long ago that I had to read it again in preparation for our time in South Africa. Yes, it was a novel; yes, it was fantastic.
Who’s read this novel? What did you think? What did it lead you to do, to think, to feel, and to read next?
I hope you can read this novel too. South Africa, so I was told the other day by a professor friend in South Africa, is not now what it was when Cry, the Beloved Country was written. In some ways, the book both anticipates and deconstructs apartheid.
For three weeks now the images, sounds, smells, and words of this novel have wandered around in my head and heart — popping out like spring flowers for attention at the oddest of times. Alan Paton’s capacity to use words to paint images and create a space for his story is something that has continued to deepen my love for this novel. I feel like I know Stephen Kumalo and like I’ll be looking for him next week at some coffee shop outside Johannesburg.
No reason to spoil the plot for you, so let me mention a few themes that stood out for me:
1. The story tells a story of a depressing reality in one line: “All roads lead to Johannesburg.” That’s not the same as Rome; that’s the story that the Africans who go there lose their way and their history and their place and their land and their identity. Stephen Kumalo’s search for his sister and his son in Johannesburg — and he finds them both — leads to both discovery and disaster.
2. The story is a yearning: “Cry, the beloved country” is a theme of a yearning for a return to better ways and a discovery of better days.
3. The story is a story of hope: When Stephen Kumalo returns to his village a note of hope and possibility and a future for the land and for the people begin to emerge. The rains will come … it goes on.
4. The story is a story of a land, of earth, of grass, of hills, of sun … it brings in the land so often critics have said the land is actually a character in this novel. I suppose so.
5. The story warns of a racist reality that has not been undone; it pushes and probes into the heart of humans and asks, “Why?”
What a fantastic story. Glad I read it again.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.soulgardeners.com Tom Smith

    Looking forward to your visit!
    Our country is truly breathtaking … an amazing canvass of the Creator.
    I can take you to some very neat Johannesburg coffee shops …

  • Vance Johnson

    Read it about 36 years ago when it was a real issue. Haunting and gripping at the same time. Thanks for reminding me about the power of that book.

  • Diane

    Hi Scot,
    I never read this book, but will put it on my list … I’m curious as to a work of fiction you actually *like!*

  • http://xanga.com/papua2001mk Kacie

    GREAT book, and I also recommend “Too Late the Phalarope”, also by Paton and set in South Africa, with themes of fatherhood and guilt.
    There is a movie made of “Cry The Beloved Country”. It doesn’t catch the nuance of the book, but considering we live in a visual generation that is captured by film, it’s a good movie.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Taught it this year. Love this book. The writing, the story, the meaning.

  • http://www.stewart5.net Arthur

    now living in South Africa for 5 years, I recommend this book to people coming over because of its continuing relevance. the reality of cities and their affect on culture, particularly in the 2/3 world, is captured so well in Paton’s book. I know quite a few families who are living this story today.

  • Rob O.

    I’ve recently read some Nadine Gordimer that gave me (as far as I know) something of a feel for modern South Africa. It gave me a desire to learn more about the country. I’ll definitely look into this book.

  • http://blog.lindholtz.net Rick L in Texas

    Never read the book. But lived in RSA for part of 2 summers. The year before and the year after Steve Biko died. Stayed in the homes of White Dutch, White English, Black, and colored families – all of them wonderful Christian believers. Sang in white churches black universities and to mixed race audiences which was a HUGE thing in 1975. Enjoy your trip and especially enjoy some good South African curry!

  • Jodi

    One of my all time favorite books. I rolled my eyes when my Mom gave it to me for Christmas many years ago….and then spent the entire day reading until finished–it was impossible to put down. Have you read Kafir Boy? It’s old, but it changed my life when I read it as an 8th grader…it put South Africa on my heart from that moment on. Safe travels and may God bless you and those He puts in your path while there.

  • http://ccwhistlinginthedark.blogspot.com Christopher Cottingham

    Read it in college. I was struck because, not being a really visual person, I normally skim through lengthy descriptions of landscape and the like. (I’m a HUGE Tolkien fan, for instance, but most of the “travelouge” aspects of his fiction are lost on me.) But with “Cry, the Beloved Country” I was captivated. The first page was and is shockingly beautiful…some of the absolute best prose (but it’s really poetry, isn’t it?) that I have ever, ever read. A beautiful, sad, hopeful novel.
    Somewhere in that same timeframe I read his meditations on the prayer of St. Francis – titled “Instrument of Thy Peace”, I think. I remember finding it very profound and thought-provoking, but haven’t retained specifics. It’d be interesting to reread both, see how the passage of 10-15 years changes my reactions to them.

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    I wouldn’t describe many novels as beautiful, but Cry… is one that compels me to use that label because there aren’t any other words that do it justice. The simplicity and awe-inspiring poetry of his language is a delight to read and moved me in ways that few novels have.
    I just read it for the first time last December over Christmas break write after reading Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy… between those two that was probably the best month of reading I’ve ever had :).


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