review: power of one

Power of One by Bryce Courtney

Book Jacket Summary:

In 1939, as Hitler cast his enormous, cruel shadow across the world, hatred of a similar kind took root in South Africa, where the seeds of apartheid were newly sown. There a boy called Peekay was born. He spoke the wrong language — English, the language spoken by those who had sent the Afrikaners to the world’s first concentration cams during the Boer War. He was suckled by a woman of the wrong color — black, the color of fear and disdain. His childhood was marked by humiliation and abandonment. Yet he vowed to survive — he would become the welterweight champion of the world, he would dream heroic dreams.

But his dreams were nothing compared to what awaited him. For he embarked on an epic journey through a land of tribal superstition and modern prejudice, where he would learn the power of words, the power to transform lives, and the mystical power that would sustain him even when it appeared that villainy would rule the world: The Power of One.

This is possibly the worst book jacket summary ever — because honestly, it does no credit to the power and beautiful construction of this novel.

I’ll be honest; this is less a review, and more an endorsement of your time. Because if you haven’t read this book, you need to amend that oversight in your life. I first read this book in high school (9th grade?), and I remember only two things: Peekay is the embodiment of a Renaissance Man, and the ending made me cry. Not because it was sad, but because I’d physically read the last page, and I wanted more. And I am so glad I re-read this novel; everything about it is an example of great literature — so great, that I barely know how to begin.

First, at the very basic, the sentence construction is beautiful. As if Courtney labored over every single word, every single phrase. The action scenes are intense and powerful; the death scenes deep and moving; the landscape almost more beautiful in words than it could ever be in person. I find myself always completely engrossed in the moment, for even passages which are only necessary to understand the upcoming events — passages which seem rough and jarring in most books — seem to move the story forward, rather than stagnate.

Next, the characters are entirely engrossing. Rather than focusing on just a few people, Courtney provides a wide and vivid cast of characters who never seem superfluous, who never bore or annoy me, who always grow and develop whether present for a few pages or for the majority of the novel. The villains are deeply evil, the heroes inspirational and empowering. My favorite characters include Doc, Geil Piet, and Mannie — and you would never meet three people more different! They all push Peekay in their own way — his intelligence, his boxing, his ability to work the system — all the meanwhile providing their undying love and friendship for an incredible young boy.

Peekay is an inspiration. A boy who is intelligent, passionate, and determined; who manages to inspire not only those close to him, but an entire nation of people who believe in his innate power and greatness. Peekay has his feet in both worlds of subjugated black and ruling white: able to speak most tribal languages, out-box every boy he meets, identify nearly every species of cacti in the desert, and play Chopin. It is easy to become immersed in his story — the story of a boy coming of age in a nation which is troubled by hatred that he finds stupid, and his fight against the apartheid in favor of the unifying love of Africa.

While this novel makes no trite attempt at what would be an all-too-pretentious ending of peace and happiness for all, it manages to leave the reader with a sense of some victory in the battle against hatred and racism.  It makes me believe in one’s own ability to succeed against the odds through perseverance and determination; the ability for one person to do something great, to inspire, to succeed, to help. The power of a single person to leave the world a better place.

Despite the trite cliche, it’s the inspirational and overwhelming feeling of this novel — the belief in The Power of One.

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