Chapter 1 Summary

Alan Paton begins the first book of Cry, the Beloved Country with a poetic description of the rural land near the town of Ixopo in South Africa.

The hills around Ixopo are full of beauty. A person can look in all directions and see more hills, or mountains, or rivers. Standing there, one knows that the beauty goes on as far as the land goes—all the way to the sea. One also knows that this land has supported African people for many thousands of years.

As this description continues, the author emphasizes the health of the land at the tops of the hills. The people here do not raise too many animals or build too many fires, so their land does not suffer from erosion. The grass grows so densely that the dirt cannot be seen underneath. This keeps the soil healthy, so the rain does not wash it away. The author says that people should treat this land as a holy place:

Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

After that, Paton’s tone changes abruptly as he describes how erosion slowly destroys the land in the valleys, where people raise too many cattle and burn too many fires. There, the grass thins out so that the red dirt can be seen underneath. The rain falls and, instead of being absorbed into the earth, flows as runoff into the sea, taking the soil along. As this destruction worsens, it advances toward the healthy areas, threatening them as well. According to the author, the eroded land “is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men.” 

As the chapter ends, Paton paints a sad picture of the eroded land as a dying place. Thunderstorms bring rain that would help healthy land, but when the land is unhealthy, the rain just worsens the erosion. The streams fill up with "the red blood of the earth"; that is, the water carries the red African soil to the sea. The corn does not grow tall, and the produce of the farms is too meager to feed all the people.

Because of this, the people are forced leave the land. Only the oldest men and women, a few young mothers, and the children remain on the farms. The adult men and many of the young women have moved to the cities to work. The land has not been cared for, so it cannot take care of the people.