*Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A modern classic, Cry, the Beloved Country movingly illustrates how faith and culture intersect in Apartheid-era South Africa.

Note: this is one of our featured titles for our 2024 Summer Reading Program—Around the World: Asia & Africa! You can buy this book, and the rest, through our Summer Reading Book Fair with Storyglory Kids. (Use our coupon code Redeemed10 for 10% off your books).

*Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. 1948. 316 pages.

cover of Cry the Beloved Country
  • Reading Level: Teens, ages 15 and up
  • Recommended For: Ages 15 and up

Summary of Cry, the Beloved Country

I like to point out, when I’m teaching this novel to high school students, that the title is a direct address to the real subject of the book: the country itself. What country? South Africa, during apartheid. The people characters loom large, and readers will come away with meaningful relationships with many of them. But ultimately, the novel begins and ends with the country, the land itself.

In the beginning, Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu man who is a country priest, receives troubling news from Johannesburg concerning his son, Absalom. He is also worried about his sister Gertrude. Both left for Johannesburg; no one seems to return from Johannesburg. With his wife’s blessing, he sets out on a long journey to Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg.

Once there, Kumalo learns the hard way that city folk can’t always be trusted. Another minister, Msimangu, has pity on him, and he helps Kumalo begin the arduous work of tracking down his wayward family members. As the story progresses, Kumalo learns many things he wishes he didn’t know. Deep grief, worry about his son and sister, and troubles among the black peoples of Johannesburg move him to prayer. Where is justice? Who is there to help? Why do the young people go astray?

A terrible murder occurs at one point: a young white man is killed by several young black men. The white man is the son of a Mr. Jarvis whom Mr. Kumalo knows from his country village. As the details unfurl, the two men both learn what forgiveness costs, what its ultimate value is, and how to move forward in reconciliation. Their reconciliation is a hopeful look at what might await the beloved country itself.

Truth and Story in Cry, the Beloved Country

Truth and Story are helpful terms when discussing a book like Cry, the Beloved Country, a book that includes notable considerations and plenty of “messy” elements. Surely, a book that contains extramarital affairs, violence, men and women clearly living in violation of both God’s law and common decency isn’t one we want our teenagers reading!

And yet. And yet.

I can think of no other modern novel that portrays the grand story of redemption in such a moving way. There is great sin in this book. And there is great cost to the persons involved. Consequences follow, even when perpetrators are repentant. The unrepentant sometimes get off free and easy. Where is justice?

Kumalo’s faith is such a shining example of trusting the Lord in the midst of pain and uncertainty. Msimangu’s service to Kumalo reminds us what it is like to truly love our neighbors—especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Reaching across racial lines and, far more poignantly, across grievous sin, to forgive and build bridges—is this not what the gospel offers us? Notably, as Jarvis and Kumalo reconcile, the land itself begins to heal. Communities show glimmers of future prosperity. The gospel is for all of life; the new heavens and the new earth will right all the wrongs we see in our society and in the land today. That redemption is only possible because of Christ’s work on the cross.

Considerations:

  • Sexuality: Kumalo’s sister is in a house of ill repute, and she herself is no innocent woman. A brief interlude in the middle of the book is from the perspective of a woman in a crowded shantytown dwelling; she muses over what will happen if they rent space to others who might violate her daughter. Kumalo’s son has a girlfriend who is pregnant.
  • Violence: Murder (as mentioned above).
  • Death: Someone dies for committing murder.
  • Heavy themes: This book has thematic elements you will want to discuss and talk about. The amount of heavy/bad news is mostly offset by the hopeful/good news. It’s not a “happy book,” but it is a deeply satisfying one.

*indicates a starred review

  • A Review: Another title, better suited for younger readers, that illustrates reconciliation and forgiveness in an African setting is A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.
  • A Review: Nearer My Freedom is a unique memoir of an African who was enslaved but eventually purchased his freedom and settled in England.
  • A Review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is a thoughtful, yet difficult, read for older teens that’s about the Boko Haram kidnappings.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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2 Comments

  1. Beth Claycomb on July 12, 2024 at 1:49 pm

    Another title to add to my to-read list. Your review reminded me of the book The Power of One, which I read as a young adult. The issues facing South Africa were unknown to me until then, so the book was an eye-opener. I have a teenaged son, so this one might be a good family read.

    • Betsy Farquhar on July 16, 2024 at 3:48 pm

      I had a teen in one of my high school classes tell me about The Power of One–but I’ve not read it!

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