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Friday, September 5, 2008

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: THE POWER OF ONE BY BRYCE COURTENAY!

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: THE POWER OF ONE BY BRYCE COURTENAY!

While Bryce Courtenay’s brilliant first novel The Power Of One (published in 1989) is considered a classic in other parts of the world, it is not as well known in America as it deserves to be.

This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in pre-WWII South Africa, was recommended to me by a friend who loves boxing novels. However, like Million Dollar Baby, The Power Of One uses boxing as a simple framework on which to hang a deeply intense and personal tale of an individual battling and being victorious over the greatest of odds.

Told in the first person from when he is five-years-old, the English Peekay has been born in a South Africa divided by racism and hatred. His experiences at the hands of the older Boer children at a harsh Afrikaans-language boarding school are as bleak and heart-wrenchingly real as anything ever committed to the page. Being urinated on by a pack of older boys, and then beaten for it by the matron, is one of the lesser indignities he is forced to survive.

Eventually, Peekay’s experiences teach him small can beat big if you act first with the head and then with the heart. Armed with this knowledge, he resolves to take on the injustices of his country, and sets his heart on becoming the welterweight champion of the world. Although he continues to endure many losses, he grows through his experiences, and continues to pursue his goal to become a boxer.

Peekay forges loving relationships with adults, most notably Doc, a German professor. When Doc is detained as an enemy alien, Peekay's life becomes intertwined with the local prison. It is there that he finally learns to box and becomes a secret ally of the black prisoners.

Characters are rarely presented as good or evil, there are portions of each in every personality who sprawls across the novel’s canvas. Peekay’s singleminded pursuit of his goal brings him into contact with all levels of South African society. As he grows through puberty and into youngmanhood, Peekay becomes South Africa – embodying all of the contries hopes, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses.

The storytelling here is epic yet personal, grand concepts examined under the microscope on individual experiences – hatred, racisim, honor, glory, sacrifice, friendship, manhood. To read The Power of One is to be hit with an emotional punch which will both inspired and change you.

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