by Alan Paton
This is one of those books I picked up at a used sale one day just because I recognized the title as being famous. Then it sat on my shelf for at least eight years. I chose it to read this weekend and was surprised at how intent the story was and how quickly I moved through it.
It is told in two parts. In the first half, a Zulu parson leaves his small, rural village and travels to Johannesburg in search of several family members who have dispersed there. His sister, his son, his brother. The great sprawling city at first bewilders the elderly parson, but even more bewildering and painful is what he discovers of his lost family members- they have each fallen into disreputable ways of making a living. Dispirited, he tracks them down, learning of their troubles and attempting to bring them back home. Some cannot be found, or cannot be recovered, or simply don\’t wish return. It is with a very heavy heart he returns to his village with fragments of his family and a burden of shame for the crimes his son, in particular, has committed.
Yet on his search through dark corners of Johannesburg and its skirting slums, he met with great kindness and help from strangers. And now, come home again, the parson struggles to help his village. The land is depleted, crops are failing, young people deserting the area, children dying. He carries the shame of his family back with him, and worse yet, discovers that a white man who owns farmland near the village was personally wronged by his son\’s crime. It is with the deepest sorrow that he admits this relationship to his neighbor. It seems that everything is falling to pieces, when help for the village comes from an unexpected source. I did wish this part of the story was fleshed out more- it interested me to read about the efforts to change farming methods, the villagers\’ resistance to change and new ideas even when it was obvious the old ways were failing. And while I enjoyed the simple clarity and lyrical writing, was deeply touched by the depiction of forgiveness and compassion between the characters of this story, I was also baffled at moments when the parson expressed anger. Maybe I did not read between the lines enough, but sometimes his responses seemed out of character to me.
It is a very good book, one that is difficult to put down, or stop thinking about.
Rating: 4/5 316 pages, 1948