On the surface, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, is about Africa, South Africa in particular, and the drought-plagued province of Natal, on the eastern side of the country. Paton writes movingly about rolling hills, deep, river-fed valleys, and grassy plains that for millennia served as sustenance for the people of Africa. The geography features so prominently in the narrative, that other reviewers have called the geography “one of the book’s most important characters.” But this novel is set during a period of physical and cultural drought. The land is as barren as the tribal system that European colonialism has broken, uprooted and tossed aside. Beneath the surface is a story larger than Johannesburg, larger than Africa itself. It is a story of heartache and hope amid racial tension, and the possibility of reconciliation.
Cry, The Beloved Country tells the story of two men, both fathers. One black, the other white. Their lives collide through the actions of their sons. Stephen Kumalo, the primary focus of the novel, is an African reverend. He makes the long journey from his rural village of Ndotsheni to the overflowing slums of Johannesburg in search of his sister Gertrude and his son Absolom. Kumalo represents the village elder—wise in his humanity, naïve to the ways of the city, rooted in community and tradition—faced with a rapidly changing world. As he embarks on the train for his first visit to the great city, we read: “The journey had begun. And now the fear back again, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the great city where boys were killed crossing the street, the fear of Gerturde’s sickness. Deep down the fear for his son. Deep down the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall” (44).
In Johannesburg, Kumalo discovers that the city has broken his family, stolen their innocence. His sister is a prostitute, his son, Absalom, a killer with a pregnant fiancé. The city tries to break Kumalo too, but he is strong, and resists. He longs for his village, where the tribal rhythms promise peace and safety, and tries to convince his sister and his son’s fiancé to return home with him. His sister will not come.