The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is a coming-of-age story about a white South African boy in the 1930s and 1940s. The narrator is raised in a confusing environment of violence, death, and racial and cultural hatred. Throughout the course of the story, he learns to rely on himself and believe that all people are equal.
In the first years of his life, the narrator of The Power of One lives on a farm with his mother and a black wet nurse, Nanny, who teaches him to speak Zulu and other African languages. When he is five years old, his mother has a nervous breakdown and he is sent to boarding school. The boys at the school are all white, but only the narrator is of English descent. His classmates and teachers are Afrikaaners, white South Africans who speak a language related to Dutch.
Because of his heritage, the narrator becomes the target of vicious bullying. The oldest boy at the school, called the Judge, leads a systematic campaign of cruelty against the narrator. He and the other boys regularly beat the narrator and urinate on him in the shower. They nickname him Pisskop, Afrikaans for pisshead. The narrator develops a bed-wetting problem, for which his teacher beats him daily with a rawhide whip called a sjambok.
When the narrator goes home for the holidays, he tells Nanny about his bed-wetting problem and the resulting beatings. She calls on Inkozi-Inkozikazi, a Zulu medicine man, to cure the narrator. The medicine man performs a mysterious cure and gives the narrator a chicken, Grandpa Chook, who becomes the boy’s only friend at school. Although the bed-wetting problem stops, the bullying and abuse continue. Near the end of the year, the narrator offends the Judge by comparing a swastika tattoo on the Judge’s arm to the tattoos many black women have. The Judge and his friends kill Grandpa Chook, which devastates the narrator.
After this traumatic year, the narrator gives himself a new nickname, Peekay, formed from the initials of Pisskop. Instead of going home to his mother’s farm, he is sent to live at his grandfather’s home in the South African town of Barberton. On the train to his new home, Peekay makes friends with a guard named Hoppie Groenewald. Hoppie treats Peekay with kindness and gentleness, taking care of him while he waits for a train transfer to Barberton. Peekay quickly begins to idolize Hoppie, especially after seeing Hoppie win a boxing match against a much larger opponent. Peekay decides to learn boxing and become the welterweight champion of the world. Hoppie cannot accompany Peekay on the final leg of the trip to Barberton, so he sends his friend Big Hettie, an enormously fat woman who dies in the train compartment on the way.
In Barberton, Peekay’s life improves. He befriends a music professor, Doc, who cultivates Peekay’s natural humanitarian instincts and helps him realize his intellectual talents. World War II begins, and South Africa joins the war on the Allied side. Doc, a German, is taken to Barberton Prison as an enemy of the state. The guards at the prison sympathize with the Nazis, so they treat Doc with respect—even though Doc rejects the Nazi mentality. While Doc is imprisoned, Peekay is allowed to visit him for music lessons.
Peekay makes several other friends in Barberton. One is Mrs. Boxall, a librarian who helps Peekay raise money for the families of inmates at Barberton Prison. Another is Geel Piet, a wily prisoner who is mistreated because he is of mixed race. A third is Miss Bornstein, a teacher who pressures Peekay to work hard at his education. Peekay also joins the local boxing squad, convincing the coach to accept him onto the team although he is far smaller and younger than the other boys are. Peekay works hard at boxing and soon proves to be...
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