Much that matters in his writing stems from the fact that Alan Stewart Paton was born in 1903 in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa. He loved that local land as much as he loved books. He learned both passions, which figure prominently in his writings, from his father, James Paton, an immigrant from Scotland, and his mother, Eunice Warder James Paton, the daughter of English immigrants. His father was a deeply religious Christian and a strict authoritarian, so strict that his disciplinary practices provoked Paton to resist authoritarianism in any form.
Paton married Doris “Dorrie” Olive Francis in 1928, and they had two sons, David and Jonathan. Following Dorrie’s death in 1967, he married Anne Hopkins. After teaching chemistry and mathematics in high school and college, Paton worked as principal of the Diepkloof reformatory from 1935 until the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country, his first novel, written from the homesick perspective gained during a three-month tour of prisons in England and the United States.
Among the earliest voices for racial equality in South Africa, Paton helped create and vigorously promoted the Liberal Party during the 1950’s, actively opposing his country’s policy of apartheid. That opposition resulted in confiscation of his passport, eventual dissolution of the party, and the South African government’s banning of his beloved Defence and Aid Fund, which had provided legal fees for oppressed blacks. By the time of his death at age eighty-five, Paton had been honored throughout the world with international awards for his humanitarian work and honorary degrees in recognition of his writing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale, and Edinburgh.