While we can't necessarily speak for the "Beloved Country" (South Africa) of Alan Paton's heartwrenching 1948 novel about racism and injustice, we can say that Cry, the Beloved Country made us weep buckets of tears. We can promise that, if Paton had called the book Cry, the Beloved Shmoop, the title would definitely have been accurate.
And we aren't alone in finding Paton's work incredibly moving and powerful. Not only is his novel an Oprah's Book Club pick, but in the forty years between its publication in 1948 and Paton's death in 1988, it was translated into at least twenty languages and sold over fifteen million copies worldwide (source). What's more, as South Africa's first internationally bestselling author, Paton paved the way for later well-known South African writers such as Nobel Prize winners Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Without a doubt, Paton's legacy as a writer and as a social reformer continues on today.
As for how Paton came to write his hugely successful book, we have to start with his pre-Cry job. Paton is definitely in the running for Shmoop's Most Unusual Day Job For an Author prize: before quitting to become a novelist full time after the financial success of Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton was a warden at Diepkloof, a juvenile detention center for black youth ages nine to twenty-one, in the segregated city of Johannesburg.
As Paton started running Diepkloof, he realized exactly how bad the public facilities available for black people could be in South Africa. When he first arrived at the reform school, he saw that the youths were locked into their rooms at night (with around twenty per room) with a container of water to share and an empty bucket to pee in until the next morning (source). So while Paton worked to improve these awful conditions for the young men living at Diepkloof, he also used some of his experiences there as a source for his novel, to spread the word about social causes for the growing racial inequality dividing the nation.
Even though Cry, the Beloved Country actually appeared before racial segregation in South Africa reached its absolute worst stages in the 1950s through the 1980s, Paton's passionate and heartfelt discussion of prejudice has made his novel consistently relevant throughout South Africa's later anti-racist political struggles. It's one for the ages.
Looking at the diversity of South African life now, it is amazing to think that just twenty years ago, the country was still struggling through one of the bitterest racial struggles of modern history. As a black man, Nelson Mandela was only legally allowed to vote in his home country for the first time in 1994, when he was elected president. Talk about an incredible turnaround.
Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country obviously takes place long before Mandela's historic election and the start of a new, more racially equal South Africa. In 1948, the same year that Paton first published Cry, the Beloved Country, the Afrikaner National Party came up with the term apartheid to describe its new, stricter set of policies intended to enforce white legal domination over the black people of South Africa. "Apartheid" means "apartness" in Afrikaans, the language spoken today by the Afrikaners, descendants of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch settlers in southern Africa.
Because Paton's novel appeared around the same time that South Africa's racist laws began to grow really strict and far-reaching, Cry, the Beloved Country has always been associated with the policies of apartheid. Like the Jim Crow laws in the American South, apartheid limited the ways that black people and white people could interact. But apartheid went further than American segregation because under apartheid, all black people in South Africa (who make up a huge majority of the population) had to register their addresses with the cops. They also had to live in specially selected areas out in the countryside or around the edges of major cities. These settlements (a.k.a. townships) were much, much poorer than the white districts of the country.
Many of the white people who believed in apartheid felt that it was actually the divine purpose of the Afrikaner people to maintain the racial superiority of whites over black people in South Africa (source). Many more white business owners also took advantage of these racist policies to improve their profits by forcing their black workers to work for very little pay. Both of these motivations—white supremacist racism and the greedy desire for economic advantage—appear in Cry, the Beloved Country to explain why so many white South Africans resist even basic social reform.
So even though Paton's book appeared right at the beginning of apartheid, Cry, the Beloved Country warned of some of the horrible damage that legalized racism would do to South African society—at least, that is, to people who were willing to listen.
We have to give Alan Paton a lot of credit for his work fighting racist attitudes towards black crime and poverty under South Africa's unfair economic and political structures. But we can't deny that despite his good intentions, there are parts of this book are pretty hard to take nowadays. What may have looked liberal sixty-odd years ago can seem a bit high-handed and patronizing by today's standards.
For example, many of Paton's white characters are kindly but frankly condescending helpers for the often-confused and overwhelmed black main character, Kumalo. And Kumalo is grateful to receive help, without many larger ideas or reform plans of his own. We get into some of Paton's biases against black activism in our "Character Analysis" of John Kumalo. And be sure to check out our analysis of Father Vincent for more on the paternalism" (in other words, well-meaning but sometimes excessive meddling) of these white characters.
Cry, the Beloved Country is an important book because it gives us a thoughtful, wide-ranging view on the moral and social implications of legalized racism in South Africa. But it's a great book because it ties all of these big issues to a simple story with which we can all identify: the story of a kid who makes a terrible mistake and who has to face consequences, to the heartbreak of his concerned father.
After all, it's not like Cry, the Beloved Country is the only work of fiction to focus on the story of a naïve guy who gets in over his head, commits a crime, and winds up paying for it. On the funny side, think the Dude and Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, caught up in a faked kidnapping scheme that leads to hilarious and awful consequences (poor Donnie!). Or for a more terrifying example, there's Breaking Bad's Walter White, building his meth empire to pay for his medical bills. Or at least, that's how he starts out, but his good intentions don't last too long.
Certainly, the basic plot line of the decent-person-gone-wrong is pretty popular, no matter how many different versions we see of it. And we can totally see why. After all, at heart, these are all stories about more-or-less-okay people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. And who hasn't responded to a bad situation and somehow, totally accidentally, made things even worse?
Of course, our disasters aren't usually on the scale of the Dude's or Walter White's—or Absalom Kumalo's. But we have reacted badly to things and dealt with the consequences many (many) times. In fact, that sometimes seems to be what most of life is about: making mistakes, paying our dues, and at least trying to learn something from the experience, if we can.
So in Cry, the Beloved Country, while we might occasionally find ourselves overwhelmed by the historical and social contexts of the book, we can always return to its familiar emotional core. The personal experiences of in-over-his-head Absalom and his worried father Kumalo give this novel a simple, heartfelt center with which we can all sympathize—maybe all too well. And clearly, Alan Paton hopes that we'll learn from Absalom's example without having to make the same really dire mistakes that he made.