Exposition (Initial Situation)
Wait, Where Is Everybody?
Here's the sitch: a Christian priest named Stephen Kumalo lives in Ndotsheni with his wife, but all of his other family members—his sister, his brother, and his only son—have disappeared into the big city of Johannesburg.
As we know from the title of this book—Cry, the Beloved Country, not Cry, the Beloved Stephen Kumalo and Immediate Family Members—the plot of this novel is about a group of individuals, but it's also about larger problems that affect the country of South Africa. So, the book begins with both the initial situation of our main character Stephen Kumalo and the broader social issues that have led to his family's troubles.
The narrator tells us that Kumalo's valley has been hard hit by over-farming and overgrazing, which has led to soil erosion and poor harvests. Because the farms can't support their people anymore, a lot of young men and women have been leaving their traditional villages for the cities. These people never come back to their families in the countryside, leaving the farms to be tended by children and the elderly. This is also what has happened to Kumalo's family in particular: his brother John, his sister Gertrude, and his son Absalom have all gone to the city of Johannesburg to look for better opportunities. And none of them have kept in touch with the old folks back home. Bummers all around.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Oh, There the Kumalos Are—But They're Not Doing So Great
It's time for a man (and woman) hunt, Shmoopers. With the guidance of Msimangu and the liberal white priests of the Mission House, Kumalo spends ten chapters in Johannesburg searching for his sister, his brother, and his son.
With Kumalo's search for his family, we get to see different aspects of what Paton believes is wrong and damaging about urban life. So, we meet Gertrude, Absalom's long-lost, much younger sister. She is a prostitute who has been selling moonshine and neglecting her son.
We also meet John, Kumalo's brother, who is a shopkeeper and politician. John is a classic opportunist, which means he takes advantage of people's frustrations to get power and attention for himself.
And then there's Absalom. Kumalo's son has fallen in with a bad crowd and started stealing. Kumalo's sad search for his kid finally ends in prison, where Absalom is waiting for his trial for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, an up-and-coming white reformer.
All three of these characters illustrate the various kinds of crime and bad faith that (Paton thinks) have become huge problems in the black community now that traditional tribal family and social structures have broken down. Without well-defined social roles and opportunities for the future, isolated people like Gertrude and Absalom don't have much to protect them from getting into trouble in a big, crime-ridden city like Johannesburg.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Can't We Kumalos All Just Get Along?
We've reached the end of Book 1 as Kumalo works to bring his family back together following the sad discoveries of the first seventeen chapters. After all of the terrible stuff that Kumalo has found out about the lives of his sister and son in Book 1, at last we appear to have hit bottom. So surely, there's nowhere for things to go but up?
Kumalo has convinced Absalom's pregnant girlfriend to return to Ndotsheni with him and raise her child with Kumalo and his wife. That's cool. Plus, Gertrude has also agreed to return home to the village with her son. And while Absalom's case continues to look bleak, at least he is back on track morally speaking, since he has told the absolute truth about his involvement in the Jarvis burglary/murder. He has admitted to shooting Jarvis (accidentally, of course), and his lawyer Mr. Carmichael is ready to start planning his defense. Maybe it can all turn around…
Nope, It Turns Out That We Can't
Throughout Book 2, we wait and wonder: are Kumalo's efforts to reunite his family back in Ndotsheni and away from the temptations of Johannesburg actually going to work? And how will the Jarvis family help or harm Kumalo's plans?
We get all kinds of hints in Book 2 that Kumalo's wish for a happy family may not entirely work out, but we don't know exactly what is going to happen yet. Gertrude has been squabbling with the highly moral Mrs. Lithebe (the churchgoing woman Kumalo is staying with in Johannesburg), and she's clearly not happy with the quiet life of her brother. John has hired a lawyer for his son to claim that Absalom is lying and that Matthew Kumalo wasn't even there during the Jarvis burglary (even though he was). We still don't know how Jarvis is going to respond to his son's political ideas—and we don't know how he is going to treat Absalom, his son's murderer. The only one who seems honestly content with Kumalo's plans is Absalom's fiancée, who just seems eager to live in a quiet, stable place with her new family.
Maybe This Generation of Kumalos Is in a Tough Spot, But the Future Is Looking (Mostly) Brighter
In chapters 28 and 29, everyone's fate is (more or less) sealed: Absalom will be executed, Gertrude runs away and abandons her child, and John refuses to apologize to Kumalo. But the future for Ndotsheni as a whole is looking up, thanks to Jarvis and Kumalo's work together.
Sure, a lot of stuff goes wrong at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country. Absalom weeps desperately when his father leaves him at the prison, since he doesn't want to be executed. Then, just as Kumalo is about to leave for Ndotsheni, Gertrude disappears, leaving her son behind. And John Kumalo, having encouraged his son to turn on Absalom in the courtroom, refuses to apologize to Kumalo for anything that has happened, the jerk.
In a lot of ways, this is a tragic ending, since none of the relatives that Kumalo thoughthe was traveling to find in Johannesburg actually return to Ndotsheni with him. But the silver lining to all of this is that Kumalo has found new family. Absalom's fiancée—now wife—continues to like the idea of returning to Ndotsheni. Msimangu has decided to become a monk and to give up all of his worldly possessions to Kumalo. So Kumalo is no longer a desperately poor man. And James Jarvis has chosen to continue his son's good deeds by donating money to the cause of social reform for the black community. So things are improving in really unexpected ways.