Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One

Yes, you can dare to read a high quality, 500-page contemporary novel with your middle school child.  You can.  You can read to them.  They can read to you.  Most importantly – you can share it together.

I might recommend any number of novels.  The range of books you can read or share w/ a middle school child is considerably broader than that for an e.s. child.  But Bryce Courtenay died last week (November 2o12) and I’d like to call attention to – and recommend and plug – his 1989 novel, The Power of One.  This is a novel that will surprise you and enrich you.  It takes you to another place – South Africa – and is filled w/ choice characters and playful, colorful details.  It is also a moving and unforgettable coming of age story.  Best of all – it is a book targeted to an adolescent’s sensibility.  The protagonist is a young boy growing up through elementary and high school – becoming himself in his unique context.

(Yes, it was made into a film starring Stephen Dorff and Morgan Freeman – but I urge you to skip it.  Not because all film adaptations pale in comparison w/ a great novel.  There are some fine adaptations – but The Power of One is comparatively limp on film.  If you see it – wait until you’ve read it.)
Most Americans – when they think of South Africa – will assume a story w/ native black Africans at its center – struggling in some way to endure or overcome white supremacist South Africans.  But The Power of One is different – or slier – than that.

The protagonist is a young English boy – known as Peekay.  While American readers will naturally sympathize w/ the various black South Africans – Peekay presents an interesting case.  Among the white people in South Africa he is himself a minority.  The dominant white Afrikaaner society is composed of the descendants of Dutch and German immigrants.  They look askance at the few English who remain in South Africa.  When Peekay goes to boarding school he is picked on unmercifully by the white Afrikaaner bullies at his school.  Peekay’s persecution is surely different than that of South African blacks – but we root for him as an exemplar and guide – as the victim striving for personhood.

Peekay’s adventures take him into some strange, but colorful realms – from his boarding school, to a railway journey, to a boxing match, to a South African prison, to the mountains of South Africa, and eventually to the mines of Rhodesia.  Along the way Peekay not only learns to box – to assert and defend himself – but he meets an assortment of colorful allies – from Grandpa Chook (a chicken) to Hoppy (the welterweight railroad porter) to Giel Peet (a wily black prisoner) to Doc (a German naturalist and linguist who also teaches Peekay to play piano) to Rasputin (a Russian miner who drinks scotch and whittles coconut balls).

The Power of One is perhaps an unexpected book to share with your adolescent middle schooler.  But I urge you to consider it.  I remember the experience of reading it for the first time – I was in college – and how rewarding it was to discuss w/ my siblings back in high school and middle school.  (Yes – we all read it at the same time.)  Even better – I remember sharing it w/ my two adolescent daughters – I will guess they were in 9th and 7th grades at the time.  Yes – we read it as a family.  And my wife has as much regard for it as I do.  I know my girls were enlarged by the experience.  It’s not the sort of book they would have picked up on their own.  And now Peekay and all the characters in his story are shared reference points – part of our shared vocabulary.

Courtenay wrote 21 novels – but The Power of One was far and away the special favorite of readers in both the United States and Australia.  See for yourself what the fuss is about.  (Check out the blurbs on the back of the book or on if you don’t want to take my word for it.)

Sharing a book with your middle school child is a way to share a cultural experience – something that will entertain and stimulate both of you.  It does not specifically partake of your world or theirs.  Good literature operates in a nether world – in between – where it is safe for both of you to be surprised, engaged, enthralled, curious, provoked, unsure.  That is what literature is for – and we all know it can be harder to find or locate that space – or even that time – w/ your adolescent child.

The Power of One is a perfect book w/ which to try.  Because it is alien – because it is different – because it is unexpected – because it is funny and moving and inspiring – because it is about a time and a place and a people few of us know much about – is is exactly what literature is for – a journey of the mind and soul and spirit and imagination – a journey you can share together.

Give it a try.  Meet Peekay – and discover the power of reading together from The Power of One.


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