The Power of One Book Review

The Power of One Book Review by Valerie Andrews

“But I was still alive, and in my book, where there’s life, there’s hope.”

“When men can be made to hope, then they can be made to win.”

The Power of One is a book by Australian author Bryce Courtenay that has gained much critical acclaim. It is a coming of age story, but not your average one. It is a wonderful journey through the life of Peekay, a 5 year old boy, in South Africa from 1930 to 1951. The book takes the reader through his life but at the same time it shows the story of South Africa and how racism and apartheid began to develop in the country. The author introduces these themes very carefully because the book was published in 1989, during the dismantling of apartheid.

Peekay is exposed to his first experiences of hatred and prejudice when his mother suffers a mental breakdown and he is sent to boarding school. He is called a rooinek (“redneck”) which refers to him being an Englishman and his classmates bully him because they blame him for everything the English have done in South Africa. His years at the boarding school are very traumatic and the reader can see how things that happened there influenced him in his future. Peekay then meets Hoppie Groenewald, a boxing champion and it is with him where he finds his purpose in life: he wants to be the welterweight champion of the world. Hoppie is the one that introduces him to the Power of One, the power that one has inside his or herself to achieve anything. He then returns to his hometown and begins to train as a boxer in the prison. He is taught by an inmate called Geel Piet who trains him to be extraordinary. Through his teen and college years Peekay is guided by a diverse set of people that would forever influence his life. A german music teacher called Doc, his prep school jewish friend Morrie, a trainer Solly Goldman and his childhood friend and inspiration Granpa Chook, the chicken. Many of these characters go through their shared dose of prejudice and racism, showing the readers that this happens in many different situations and to many different types of people.

The most important themes in the book revolve around prejudice and the power of one. The novel doesn’t introduce racism and apartheid in a direct manner. It is done slowly, mimicking the way that it happened in real life. These ideas were not presented immediately; they were introduced slowly until they became part of people’s unconscious. D.F. Malan, the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1948 to 1954, introduced the term apartheid (“apartness”) and described it as a way for each race to develop independently, which in the end was actually a way for the white race to govern over the others. This can be seen throughout the book by some of the things Peekay thinks or sees. He and Hoppie buy shoes from an Indian woman and he notices that something is off: “He did not return her greeting, and I could tell from the way he looked at her that she was somehow not equal. I hat thought that only kaffirs were not equal, so it came as a surprise that this beautiful lady was not also.” Peekay also begins to see changes in society because it may seem that black and white people didn’t have any contact at all, but in reality it wasn’t this way, the example is the black and white boxing gymnasium.

The book is an incredible read, first because the characters are extremely relatable and likeable. They play such an important and influential part on Peekay’s life that they end up growing on the reader’s hearts. Courtenay’s writing skills are made evident in the way he portrays Peekay throughout the years. As a five year old the readers see that he is innocent on many levels and by the way he speaks we see how he begins to discover things about life. He is oblivious to things as his mother’s breakdown or alcoholism. His language and ideas mature at the same speed as the character giving the book a very realistic feel. For sporting enthusiasts, even more for boxers, the book has great descriptions from Peekay’s fights. Readers who are not particularly interested in boxing will not feel like this is a sports narration but they will enjoy all the action. The book is also filled with many descriptions of the African landscapes, from the outsides of the rural town of Barberton, to the deserts where Peekay walked with Doc, to the beauty of the city of Johannesburg. The descriptions are so vivid and real that the readers can feel they are seeing everything the characters are seeing and it gives a beautiful sense of Africa.

The book is a great way for readers to enjoy reading a novel and learning about South African history. The book is a great read that gives the readers the best of both worlds, mostly because it feels like it is unbiased. Couternay is able to portray most of the characters as human beings with flaws, regardless of their race. It is incredibly entertaining and at the same time it raises social awareness: it makes the readers question apartheid, South Africa and the way humanity has been living for the past century. The author does a great job because he also manages to convey very important life lessons through Peekay’s experiences. Lessons about courage, decisions, friendship and mostly showing readers that anybody can uncover their own power of one. In my opinion it is one of the books that has the best variety of quotations about any of these topics, and most of them are very inspiring. As Peekay describes it “I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed.”