Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Power of (More Than) One

The Power of One
by Bryce Courtenay

Not being a big fan of boxing, I am surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. Boxing is one of its major themes, as this lonely little boy, Peekay, finds his center and gains confidence because of his talent in the ring. The story goes much deeper than boxing, though. Courtenay, through the trials and perspective of Peekay, helps us understand the history of South Africa. I had not been aware of the tensions between Dutch South Africans (known as Boers) and South Africans of Bristish descent. Courtenay's appendix, which summarizes the wars between these two factions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is helpful to the reader. We can understand Peekay's isolation when he is the only English South African at a primarily Boer boarding school. Sadly, it was mutual hatred and fear of the black population that eventually united the British and the Boers.

As Peekay matures, he begins to see the racism between blacks and whites in South Africa, and to understand that this racism and its resultant apartheid are every bit as unjust and illogical as the persecution he has endured from his Boer peers. The story takes a mystical turn as Peekay's boxing prowess and his kindness to blacks combine to give him a reputation as some sort of savior of the South African blacks (known as "kaffirs"). Peekay's childhood and adolescence unfold over a period of 17 years, and one of the delights of the book is observing his growth and insight and the relationships that enrich his life.

Early on, when Peekay is only about six years old, he stands up to some bigger, meaner kids who are bullying him. Even though he takes a beating at their hands, he discovers an inner strength and focus that he begins to rely on and comes to call "the power of one." Peekay certainly does have a strong core, but I still find this an unusual concept and not exactly an accurate title for the book. In my mind, much more than the power of one, Peekay's story is about the power of relationships to sustain us and lead us down paths we might never travel on our own. Even though Peekay is a loner from the beginning, he always has at least one or two friends who believe in him and provides companionship. For approximately the first 100 pages of the book, that steadfast friend is a chicken, which makes for some funny situations.

Courtenay provides a cast of delightful characters who become a surrogate family for Peekay and end up shaping his life. Hoppie, Doc, and Geel Piet play major roles in his formative years. When Peekay is a young man, working in the mines to earn money to continue his education, one man who has come to care about Peekay even sacrifices his own life to save Peekay in a horrible accident. It is one of the most heartrending scenes of the whole story. It made me think of the sacrifice of Christ for all of humanity, and I considered the possibility that whenever anyone sacrifices his/her own life so that another might live, Christ's death and resurrection are played out all over again.

What struck me throughout the book was Peekay's lack of a family in the sense that we are used to thinking of family. We never know who Peekay's father is, he is a non entity. Peekay's mother is a peripheral character - we never even learn her name. She is a religious fanatic to whom Peekay is unable to connect beyond polite courtesies and the interactions necessary when sharing a house. Peekay and his mother care for each other, but can hardly relate at all. Peekay's grandfather (another nameless character) is a little more present to him, but he is still not one of the major influences on Peekay. Peekay has no biological siblings, but his close friends at boarding school become his brothers. As sad as the lack of biological family is, his resourcefulness in his choice of surrogate family is hopeful. Peekay shows us that it is not always blood ties that create a family, and that life-giving relationships can come from places we would never expect.

I loved reading The Power of One, as it is always satisfying to immerse myself in an interesting narrative with colorful characters. However, I have to say that I was deeply unsatisfied with the ending. After being "the bigger person" throughout the book, and becoming an advocate for South African blacks, Peekay seizes an opportunity to take vengeance on someone who bullied him years before. He takes that vengeance in a particularly brutal way. The ending seemed to me to work against the whole message of the book, and I was disappointed and disturbed. Has anyone else read this? If so, how did you react to the ending? Did I miss something?

Reverent Reader


At 6/3/09, 5:09 PM , Blogger cledster said...

I, too, loved the book and thought the ending was weak. Nonetheless, I still would recommend it as a good read.

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