Monday, January 29, 2018

The Power of One by Bryce Courteney

I want to talk to you today about a wonderful and inspiring book by Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One. I was moved by this book in a profound and lasting way. I am so thankful to my reader friends who continue to alert me to wonderful books that have somehow passed me by.

The book is set in South Africa, and its hero (or I should say one of its heroes) is a five year old boy who names himself Peekay. He is the youngest boy in a primarily Afrikaner boarding school, and he is persecuted and terrified by the Afrikaner/Boer students who call him a Rooinek (that is English), and hate him for it. His main persecutor is a big, older bully, Mevrou. “Ahead of me lay the dreaded Mevrou, the Judge and the jury, and the beginning of the power of one—how I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed.”

The first fifty pages or so of this book were so sad, the bullying so oppressive, that I considered giving up on it, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Mevrou is a huge fan of Hitler, and he taunts Peekay constantly with the threat that when Hitler comes to South Africa, he will march all the Rooineks into the sea. Although incredibly precocious in some ways, Peekay is almost totally naïve in others. He has no map of the world in his mind, and is so naïve regarding the larger world that under the assault from Mevrou, he actually thinks that South Africa is on the side of the Germans in World War II. His only companion and defender in the early part of the book is a wise and gnarly old chicken, Grampa Chook, whom his nanny has helped him smuggle into the boarding school. Eventually, Mevrou and his gang of bullies declare both Peekay and Grampa Chook prisoners of war, and regularly haze them in horrible ways  behind the outhouses. 

Finally, Peekay gets some respite from Mevrou when a semester ends and he is sent to his grandfather in a small town. The grandfather, who had a small farm until a chicken disease wiped out all of his prize chickens, is one of the few bright lights in Peekay’s early life. On the train journey, Peekay runs into the first of a string of saviors, a railroad worker who cares for him on his long train trip and who insists that someday Peekay will be the welterweight champion of the world. 
I didn’t know then that what seemed like the end was only the beginning. All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives. Unbeknown to me, the tide had turned and I was being swept out to sea.
It is the railroad worker, Hoppie, himself a locally famous boxer, who teaches Peekay “First with the head and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start.” “He gave me a defense system, and with it he gave me hope.”

After meeting and being cared for by Hoppie, the next savoir for Peekay is a professor of music who has exiled himself to South Africa and spends most of his waking hours gathering succulents and cactus for his superb succulent garden. Doc (as Peekay comes to call him) contrives for Peekay to take piano lessons from him, in spite of the objections of Peekay’s born-again Christian mother, who is suspicious of all who do not share her born again faith. Doc is drawn to Peekay not so much because of his musical promise, but because he has such an inquisitive mind and is so eager to learn. 

In my 50 plus years of teaching, I came to believe strongly (as Doc does) that openness and curiosity are the most important aspects of a good learner and of brilliance. Doc takes Peekay into the hills every day to catalogue and gather specimens, and he teaches him to look carefully at everything and so see everything as interconnected. But while Doc has a wonderful and orderly mind, he also instills in Peekay a deep reverence for nature and for the mystery that lies therein.
The vines are people you encounter who are afraid of originality; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous…Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you will grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life.
Doc teaches him to really look, and to think clearly. But, he continues,
…in this world there are very few things made from logic alone. It is illogical for a man to be too logical. Some things we must just let stand. The mystery is more important than any possible explanation. The searcher after truth must search with humanity. Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life. When a truth is not so important, it is better left as a mystery.
When world War II expands to South Africa, Doc is arrested and imprisoned, essentially simply for being a German. Fortunately, the Commandant of the prison is a lover of music, and feels privileged to have Doc in his prison, even arranging for him to have his Steniway transported to the prison in exchange for a concert to impress his superiors and the townspeople. Peekay is allowed access to the prison on a daily basis and continues to learn from Doc. Also, despite his youth and his small size he is allowed into the boxing program at the prison where yet another of his heroes, a black man, Geel Piet, comes into play. Geel Piet teaches him how to box and how to use his feet to stay out of the way of the much bigger sluggers/fighters who can hit hard but can’t really box. “The boxer who takes chances gets hit and gets hurt. Box, never fight, fighting is for heavyweights and domkops.” Geel Piet and the way he is treated by Afrikaners also brings Peekay to understand that “racism is a primary force of evil designed to destroy good men.”

I think there will be some readers who will simply not be able to accept the precocity of this young boy, will not be able to achieve that suspension of disbelief that is required to lose oneself in a well told story. Courtenay, himself, seems to anticipate this when he has Peekay say, “You may ask how a six-year-old could think like this. I can only answer that one did.”

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