The Power of One (The Power of One #1) by Bryce Courtenay
The Power of One is a novel by Australian author Bryce Courtenay, first published in 1989. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells the story of an English boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay. (In the movie version, the protagonist’s given name is Peter Phillip Kenneth Keith, but not in the book. The author identifies “Peekay” as a reference to his earlier nickname “Pisskop”: Afrikaans for “Pisshead.”)
It is written from the first person perspective, with Peekay narrating (as an adult, looking back) and trusting the reader with his thoughts and feelings, as opposed to a detailed description of places and account of actions.
No stranger to the injustice of racial hatred, five-year-old Peekay learns the hard way the first secret of survival and self-preservation – the power of one. An encounter with amateur boxer Hoppie Groenewald inspires in Peekay a fiery ambition – to be welterweight champion of the world.
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“The Power of One has everything: suspense, the exotic, violence; mysticism, psychology and magic; schoolboy adventures, drama.”
–The New York Times
“Unabashedly uplifting . . . asserts forcefully what all of us would like to believe: that the individual, armed with the spirit of independence–‘the power of one’–can prevail.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer
In 1939, as Hitler casts his enormous, cruel shadow across the world, the seeds of apartheid take root in South Africa. There, a boy called Peekay is
born. His childhood is marked by humiliation and abandonment, yet he vows to survive and conceives heroic dreams–which are nothing compared to what life actually has in store for him. He embarks on an epic journey through a land of tribal superstition and modern prejudice where he will learn the power of words, the power to transform lives, and the power of one.
“Totally engrossing . . . [presents] the metamorphosis of a most remarkable young man and the almost spiritual influence he has on others . . . Peekay has both humor and a refreshingly earthy touch, and his adventures, at times, are hair-raising in their suspense.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Marvelous . . . It is the people of the sun-baked plains of Africa who tug at the heartstrings in this book. . . . [Bryce] Courtenay draws them all with a fierce and violent love.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“A compelling tale.”
–The Christian Science Monitor
“The Power of One” follows an English-speaking South African boy named Peekay from 1939 to 1951. The story begins when Peekay’s mother has a nervous breakdown, and Peekay ends up being raised by a Zulu wet nurse, Mary Mandoma, who eventually becomes his nanny. At a young age, Peekay is sent to a boarding school. As the youngest student attending the school, he is frequently harassed. The students call him Piskop (meaning piss-head) and rooinek (redneck—a name given to the British during the Boer War) among other names. This continues with an older boy, the Judge, and his partners who further punish him for his frequent bedwetting with verbal and physical abuse. The Judge is a Nazi sympathizer, and he has a hatred for the English, proclaiming that Hitler will march the English out to sea. The Afrikaans woman who runs the boarding school does not console him and walks around threateningly with a whip.
After Peekay returns home after his first year at the boarding school, his nanny calls a medicine man called Inkosi-Inkosikazi to cure his bedwetting. Inkosi-Inkosikazi not only succeeds, but also leads Peekay’s mind to a place where there are three waterfalls and ten stepping stones, where Peekay can always “find” him. The next school year, Peekay returns with a magic chicken of Inkosi-Inkosikazi’s and a different paradigm, called the power of one. Peekay is excellent in his studies, but maintains a camouflage to hide it from his fellow students and teachers. He finds that this is a good way to beat the system and avoid unnecessary abuse. As the punishments from the Judge continue to get worse, Peekay ends up doing the Judge’s math homework. At the end of the year, the Judge forces Peekay to eat feces, and kills his beloved chicken. He looks forward to arriving home to his nanny, but has been informed there has been a change in plans. He will be travelling to a town called Barberton, where he will meet his grandfather.
On the train ride to Barberton, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenwald, who shows Peekay his boxing gloves. Hoppie is a boxing champion, and he invites Peekay to watch him box during a stop in the ride. It is there that Peekay is inspired to be the welterweight champion of the world. Hoppie teaches Peekay the phrase “First with your head, then with the heart,” a phrase which Peekay commits to memory. At Barberton, Peekay sees his mother again. She has returned from the mental institution and converted to being a born-again-Christian. He learns that his mother had left his nanny because she refused to convert. His mother also tries to convert him, but he tells his mother that the Lord is a “shithead.” Retreating to the hills behind his home, Peekay meets a German professor, Karl von Vollensteen, to whom Peekay refers as “Doc.” Doc is a music professor and botanist who collects cacti and has his own cacti garden. Doc and Peekay become close friends, and he offers Peekay piano lessons. When World War II breaks out, Doc is taken into the Barberton prison for being an unregistered alien. Peekay visits him every day for piano lessons, and attends the prison’s boxing squad. A prisoner with whom Peekay becomes friends, Geel Piet, teaches him to box, and Peekay leads the team to a victory. Later, Peekay develops great sympathy for the prisoners and arranges Doc and Geel Piet a letter-writing service and a tobacco distribution service. This makes Peekay very famous among the prisoners, and they call him the great chief “Tadpole Angel” (a reference to Doc being the “Frog” for his nightly piano playing). One of the wardens discovers that some suspicious activity has been going on, and one night, Geel Piet is murdered in the gym.
The War ends, and Doc finds himself free again. Ms. Boxhall, the local librarian, and a Jewish schoolteacher, Miss Bornstein, work with Doc to further encourage the blossoming of Peekay’s intellect with many activities such as science, literature and chess. He passes his Royal College of Music exams and earns the best under-twelve boxer in the region. With the help of his guides, Peekay is accepted into the prestigious Prince of Wales school in Johannesburg.
At the Prince of Wales, Peekay partners with the son of a Jewish millionaire, Morrie (Hymie in non-American versions) Levy. They pull off many “scams” to earn money and Peekay joins the school’s ailing boxing team. Morrie becomes Peekay’s manager and they pull off the first win of the school in many years. Peekay then starts boxing lessons with South Africa’s famous Solly Goldman. Peekay grows to be a stranger to failure, excelling at academics, boxing and rugby. Near the end of his last year of school, he must face the death of Doc and not earning a Rhodes scholarship, therefore missing his chance to join Morrie (Hymie) at Oxford to study law.
As a result, Peekay takes a year off of boxing and academics and goes to work in Northern Rhodesia’s copper mines to “find himself” and build up the muscle to become a welterweight. He takes on the dangerous work of a “grizzly man” as required by all new miners, but continues on to earn double wages, thereby saving enough to attend Oxford. At the mines, he meets a Georgian called Rasputin and they become close friends. When Peekay has an accident in his shaft, Rasputin saves Peekay, but gives his own life up instead. Rasputin names Peekay as his beneficiary; that and his own insurance payout gives him enough to be able to attend Oxford. One night before Peekay leaves the mining camp, Peekay meets his old nemesis, the Judge, in a bar at the mines. The Judge is in an insane rage due to handling mine explosives and tries to kill Peekay. A fight ensues and Peekay puts all he has learned in his life to destroy the Judge. After defeating the Judge, Peekay carves a Union Jack and the initials “PK” over the Swastika in the Judge’s arm.
Book Review – The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
The Power of One is one of those books that I really should have read years ago. I’ve certainly meant to read it for a long time so this was a satisfying title to cross off my list. It’s stunning that this was Bryce Courtenay’s first novel. I look forward to reading his others because if this is where he started, he’s a talented writer.
The Power of One is set in South Africa, starting shortly before World War Two, and following approximately fifteen years in the life of our narrator, Peekay. At the age of six, Peekay decides that his life’s ambition is to become the welterweight champion of the world (that’s in boxing) and the rest of the novel follows him as he works to realize this dream. Peekay is a young English boy (a rooinek, as the Afrikaaners call him) living in a racially diverse and tense society. The book encouraged me to learn more about the Boer War and the history of South Africa. Much of what I know about South Africa comes from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography so it was interesting to hear some of the history from a fictional and English perspective. (Courtenay grew up in South Africa, by the way.) I’d be very curious to read something from the Afrikaaner perspective or from a different African perspective.
The book is well written with strong details. The physical landscape is beautifully described. I learned about boxing, cacti, and boarding schools. It’s a thick book but I read it easily over a long weekend; once I began the novel I wanted to finish it right away. At the end I was left to ponder Courtenay’s handling of the racial issues surrounding Peekay. My initial reaction was that Peekay didn’t do enough, wasn’t kind enough. That his lack of action made him a bad person. I wanted more from him in his treatment of the Africans around him. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Peekay was likely pretty progressive for South Africa in the 50s. The fault therefore lies with the culture this character was raised in, one where the African people were automatically thought of as second class, to be compared to intelligent animals. Even the kindest of characters seem to treat the Africans around them as one might a favourite pet dog. From my North American, 21st perspective, that’s not good enough (and I stand by that in the real world), but in the novel’s world, those tiny differences say a lot about its characters. In fact, it seems to highlight the sadness of injustice and racism, that even the small kindnesses that some of the characters offer – kindnesses that, to me, don’t even seem that kind – make them stand out in a society of prejudice and apartheid.
My major fault against The Power of One was the character of Peekay. Although immensely likeable, Courtenay writes him as a sort of superman, a boy good at everything. At some point in the novel I realized that everything is just sort of working out for Peekay and from there on, a lot of the tension vanished. In short, he was too perfect. The book lost touch with realism on a number of points. Not everybody turns out to be talented at what they decide to be at the age of six. That’s why I’m not an astronaut. Sure, there are people who are as talented in as many facets as Peekay seems to be, but the majority of us are not. A character with real flaws is easier to sympathize with and to celebrate with when he does win out. The ending as well did not offer me the redemption it seemed to want to provide for its main character. For a relatively long book, it felt like it ended too quickly.
In the end though, I would recommend the novel as a snapshot of history, of South Africa, of youth and maturity.