This was an incredibly sad book, but I suppose that’s only to be expected. This came from my list of classic books that I’ve never read.
It’s set in South Africa, sometime after 1900 but before apartheid became law in the mid 1940s. The author ran a reform school that was based in a former prison, the same one Ghandi had been imprisoned in, in fact. He wrote the book while on a tour of prisons in Europe and America and his love for his country is palpable in the book. The landscape itself is almost a character in the novel.
The book itself is divided into three sections. In the first, you follow the adventures of Stephen Kumalo, a rural priest who gets a letter from a priest in Johannesburg telling him his sister is sick and he must come get her. Johannesburg is like a black hole in this book–people go there and never come back. His brother-in-law went there for her job and never came back, which is why the sister took her small child there, to try to find him. She never came back. Also lost in Johannesburg is Kumalo’s brother and son.
When he gets to Johannesburg, he discovers that his sister isn’t actually sick. She’s working as a prostitute, and he gets her and her son out of her life and then goes looking for the rest of his family. His brother is a political activist about the treatment of native Africans in the city. His son is almost impossible to find, but eventually they do, he’s working and on probation from a reform school and planning to marry his pregnant girlfriend. Unfortunately, he’s not actually AT his job. The police find him before his father does, because he was involved in a robbery that ended in a murder.
The second part of the book follows the father of the murdered man and the trial of Kumalo’s son.
The third covers Kumalo’s life back home, after the trial, and the relationship he and his village develop with the father of the murdered man, who also lives locally.
This is a beautiful book, elegantly written with vibrant characters and a deeply affecting plot.