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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Every moviegoer is familiar with the scene. There is a bundle of dynamite waiting menacingly. A match is struck and touched to the end of the long fuse. Slowly the flame eats its way along the wire. Paralyzed with fear, you follow its progress toward the explosives.
Attempts have been made to stop the blast but to no avail. In a few moments, so to speak, the earth will be rocked by the powerful detonation, and the world will be staggered by the statistics of the dead and dying. By the time you are reading this guide to Cry, the Beloved Country the catastrophe may have already taken place, for the above description applies to the volatile Republic of South Africa. There, the long time tensions between blacks and whites have been expected to result in a massive upheaval, accompanied by great pain and bloodshed. If the blacks, the majority group in South Africa, cannot gain control of their country through an orderly process, we may yet see the dynamite, the symbol of their latent power, explode in a deafening roar.
One person who has been striving mightily to prevent the horror is Alan Paton, the author of Cry, the Beloved Country. He has spoken out against apartheid, his country's policy of racial segregation with the minority group of whites in control. Using his talent as a writer, Paton has protested against the demeaning policy of apartheid. Through his articles and stories he has worked to cut the fuse before the dynamite is reached. As you learn about Paton's life, you will come to understand why he has waged his passionate crusade against racial prejudice and its ugly by-products.
Let's go back to a September afternoon in 1946 when the homesick Alan Paton returned to his hotel room in Norway and wrote these lines:
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.
As the principal of a reform school in South Africa, he was studying prisons for the young in Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the United States. The words he wrote about the hills of his home province of Natal released a torrent of thoughts for the lonely Paton. He thought about his country, its people, and the causes of the high crime rate among young blacks in South Africa. By the time he reached San Francisco in early 1947, he had completed the manuscript of Cry, the Beloved Country. As recently as 1982, Paton still spoke of the 1948 publication of Cry, the Beloved Country as the central event of his life.
Like Arthur Jarvis in this famous novel, Paton came from an English-speaking family in the South African province of Natal. He was born in Pietermaritzburg on January 11, 1903. His mother was a third-generation South African of English descent. His father was a Scot who had come to South Africa as a civil servant just before the South African (or Boer) War (1899-1902).
Paton's childhood came during a time of promise. The British, who were relatively forward-looking on racial matters, had won the South African War, a bloody conflict with the Boers. (Boers, or Afrikaners, are descended from settlers of mainly Dutch, French Huguenot, and German descent. They speak the Afrikaans language, which is derived largely from Dutch.) In 1910 the British linked Natal, Transvaal, Cape, and the Orange Free State to form the self-governing Union of South Africa.
Paton's parents held comparatively liberal political views. They also taught their children that Afrikaners had a right to preserve their own culture. Paton was educated at a high school for white boys, Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg, and then Natal University College, where he majored in math and physics. At the university college he not only gained an education, but also broadened his understanding of Afrikaners, blacks, Coloureds (as persons of mixed ancestry are called by the government of South Africa), and Indians. He was especially active in the Student Christian Association, a society dear to Paton's hero, the South African political leader Jan Hofmeyr. Unlike Paton, Hofmeyr was of Boer descent, but he urged his fellow Boers to abandon bitter memories and to work for the good of all South Africans.
As a young man Paton also learned to speak both Afrikaans and Zulu, like Arthur Jarvis in Cry, the Beloved Country. In fact, Paton might be taken as a model for Arthur-a man with strong Christian beliefs who gradually decides he wants to devote his life to improving race relations in his country.
In 1925 Paton began teaching at the white high school in Ixopo. (His love of the area shows in Cry, the Beloved Country, from the first two sentences on.) While teaching in Ixopo, Paton met Doris Olive Francis, a third-generation South African whose husband was ill with tuberculosis. In 1928, three years after her husband died, she and Paton were married. The strong attachment to the Anglican Church that Paton developed in this period in his life shows in Cry, the Beloved Country-all the major characters are Anglican.
The newly married couple moved to Pietermaritzburg so that Paton could take a more promising job at his old high school. Six years later he suffered a severe attack of typhoid and was hospitalized for more than two months. During his recuperation he decided he didn't want to spend the rest of his life teaching the sons of the rich. By that time Jan Hofmeyr was Minister of Education, so Paton asked his advice. Hofmeyr and the Prime Minister, Jan Christiaan Smuts, had just gotten three reformatories for delinquents under age 21 transferred from the justice department to the ministry of education. Hofmeyr advised his friend to apply for the job of warden at all three places.