My first book of 2010 is one that I started on our trip to Laos over Christmas. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay was a book that resided in the back of my mind for years. There was a girl in college who talked about it as being her favorite book, and that always makes an impression on me. Tell me that such-and-such is your favorite book, and chances are, I’ll read it sometime before I die.
The Power of One is an enjoyable story of the power of human determination, and those who help us along our way. Peekay is a six-year-old English boy tormented by a group of Boer boys in a South African boarding school. He is subjected to cruel punishments by the gang, and they increase after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The leader of the gang, nicknamed the Judge by Peekay, believes that Hitler’s power will redeem the treatment of the Boers by the British in the Boer War. Peekay’s only friend is a rooster he names Granpa Chook, who is killed early in the book in the most horrific and sad scenes in the novel.
On a train trip home, Peekay spends a day with a semi-successful boxer named Hoppie Groenewald and watches his fight. That, Peekay says, changed his life. After the fight, Peekay is determined to become the welterweight champion of the world, mostly because Hoppie tells him many times that he is destined for it.
We follow Peekay and his trials while befriending compassionate adults who see something great in this young boy. He attaches himself more to these adults–Doc, Geel Piet, and Mrs. Boxell–more than he does his own semi-sane mother with her new-found Christianity. Each contributes something to Peekay’s life. He learns boxing, music, literature, and even prison smuggling (!) due to the influence of these folks in his life. His motto becomes Hoppie’s phrase, “First with the head, then with the heart.”
The story takes us through Peekay’s high school career before moving into a strange realm in the African copper mines. At that point, I felt I was reading another book. Then, one of the most egregious examples of deus ex machina occurs, and that soured me on the novel. I then saw where the author of The Kite Runner found his inspiration for his terrible ending.
I’m glad to have read this book. Books about South Africa aren’t usually on my nightstand, so I found this to be an important history lesson. Americans usually get the perspective of racism only from our own country’s troubles. Also, I love the story of the power of words and encouragement that we can bring to a child; a lesson like this is particularly important for me to hear as a teacher. The adults all brought something positive into Peekay’s life. And, I suppose that’s what bothered me about this. Along with the title, Peekay kept insisting on the power of himself, but I think he is wrong. All these others around him gave him that power. Peekay was merely the recipient of the kindness of strangers.