“He had given me the power of one – one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination”
October’s book club theme was South Africa. The book selected was the Power of One, the first novel written by Bryce Courtenay in 1989. This novel is known as his most famous work, selling more than 8 million copies and being translated into 18 languages. It is the coming of age story of Peekay in the 1930s and 1940s South Africa. The novel describes his struggles in boarding school, the support from some strong mentors that helped change his life, the hard an dangerous work of copper mining and his hard work and determination that helped focus his goal of becoming a welterweight boxing champion.
The story begins with a young boy being sent to boarding school where he is tormented by a group of older boys. He is the only rooinek (English origin) in the group and was bullied by his peers. Through the abuse, he learns the skills of survival. Despite this experience he meets a number of strong mentors who have lasting impacts on Peekay including:
- Hoppie – piques his interest in boxing inspiring him to seek out training
- Doc – instills a love of the South African nature, music and learning and shows his strength despite being incarcerated during WW2 just because he was German.
- Mrs. Boxall – a feisty librarian who helps with a letter writing campaign in the prison, helping Peekay see the injustice and strive to improve the lives of others.
- Miss. Bornstein – teaches Peekay to learn, to question and guides his education.
- Morrie Levy – his friend who supported his boxing and helped him to earn and save money while becoming his manager during their years at the Prince of Wales School.
“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives, the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swivelled and changed direction on the strength of a chance remark”
The novel is broken into 3 parts. Book 1 focused on his childhood, his horrible experience at the boarding school, the train-ride back to live with his mother and his Granpa which changed his life and his time until adolescence. It included the painful experience of having his beloved Nanny ripped away from him without being able to say goodbye and the addition of new mentors including Doc, Mrs. Boxall and Miss Bornstein who supported him as he learned his craft of boxing at the prison.
Book 2 involved his second enrolment and more positive experience in boarding school. He earned a scholarship to the prestigious Prince of Wales School, made friends and was challenged to learn and improve himself. His fame as the boxing Tadpole Angel followed him and his boxing skills were revered by his school mates and the public.
The last section of the book described his experience working in the copper mines of South Africa. This dangerous work paid well to accommodate for the great personal risk of working as a “grizzly”. He worked diligently to earn enough money to support his future education, becoming a man and coming to terms with the abuse from his childhood experience in boarding school.
Like Peekay, Courtenay was born in South Africa and was supported by a mother who worked as a dress maker. It was reported that the author had spent time in an orphanage where he learned survival skills and how to box. The similarities did not end there, he also worked in the copper mines to fund his education in journalism.
Courtenay met his wife and moved to Australia where he worked writing advertising copy. It is reported that he realized that he needed to change his lifestyle of smoking and drinking heavily and he published his first book, The Power of One, in 1989 in his early 50s. He died from stomach cancer in November 2012. He wrote 21 novels and an article from the New York Times shared that:
“Mr. Courtenay pursued novel writing with a gruelling schedule. He started a new novel every January, writing six days a week, 12 hours a day until he finished in midsummer, delivering a chapter at a time to give his publisher in time to publish the book before Christmas” (NYT, 2012).
To enhance our book club evening, we enjoyed the presentation of South African history
along with a slideshow of pictures presented by our friend, Jill who had travelled to South Africa in December 2015. Her safari pictures and vast knowledge of the country, from her family history, time living in SA and trips back, taught the group about the country. We enjoyed sampling South African treats such as the biltong that Peekay had kept under his mattress (dried, spiced meat) and chocolate bars unique to SA.
Fun Fact – South Africa has 11 official languages!
The Power of One is can only be described as powerful novel of strength, perseverance, friendship and work ethic. Historic fiction is always a favourite genre for me and the culture and history of South Africa was woven skillfully thought the story. It is a novel that takes time to enjoy and my experience was enhanced by hearing Jill’s personal tales of her trips to SA describing rondavels, the chocolate she enjoyed as a young girl and seeing the amazing pictures of her safari adventures that she shared with her family. SA would be an amazing place to visit – except for the enormous spiders and poisonous snakes!!
“The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses to run vaster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further, or box better.”