“Where there’s life, there’s hope”- “The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay

July 23, 2012 at 9:57 pm 1 comment

The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay, Published in 1989 

Cover of "The Power of One: A Novel"

Cover of The Power of One: A Novel

This is a tough review to write because I don’t think I can do this book justice.  Let me just start by saying this book has an amazing heart to it and the characters are beautiful.

This novel is set in South Africa during the 1930s and early 1940s.  The narrator, Peekay, is a young white South African boy of English descent.  The novel follows Peekay through his childhood, beginning with him being sent to a Boer (descendants of the Dutch settlers) boarding school while his mother is in a psychiatric hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown. Peekay learns quickly that he is the wrong kind of white, as the Boers still resent the English for the Boar Wars, and spends his time at school being severely bullied and abused.  After beginning, at the tender age of 6 years old, to question his value, Peekay is fortunate enough to meet a series of amazing people who help him survive and thrive.

Peekay first meets Hoppie on one of his train rides him from boarding school.  Hoppie is a boxer and in his short time with Peekay he convinces him that even small, timid Peekay can dream of being the welterweight champion of the world.  And Hoppie perhaps gives Peekay the most important advice of his life stating that he must act “first with the head, then with the heart.” With this new goal of becoming a world class boxer, Peekay’s life takes on a new purpose and he begins viewing himself and his persecutors in a different light.

Once Peekay is done with boarding school, he moves back home with his grandpa and his newly born-again (and questionably sane) mother.  Back home he becomes friends with an older German professor, “Doc,” who teaches him about cacti, music and the art of independant thought.  The two become inseparable during Peekay’s summers and with Doc’s help Peekay advances quickly in school but still never forgets about boxing.

At the beginning of WWII, Doc is detained in the English concentration camp and is to remain there for the duration of the war.  The concentration camp is also a prison for Zulus and Afrikkans who are forced to work hard labor while serving their time.  During Doc’s imprisonment, Peekay is able to visit him daily, continuing his music lessons, but more importantly he begins taking boxing lessons from some of the guards and a very talented Afrikkan prisoner.  Over time Peekay becomes a fairly talented boxer.  He begins fighting in junior leagues and winning – proof that winning is not about size but about making the right choices.  More importantly, as Peekay spends time in the prison he begins to see the cruelty of apartheid and the significant harm that the misuse of power can bring.  Quite accidentally Peekay becomes the voice of the Afrikkan and Zulu prisoners and eventually becomes a legend.

Courtenay deftly weaves the political strife and tragic history of South Africa into Peekay’s story. He is a great story-teller but clearly has a message.  Somehow Courtenay is able to gently deliver the message without making the reader feel that the book is inundated with heavy-handed superiority. That seems to make that message all the more poignant.

To be clear, this is not a book about boxing, though in some ways this sport saves Peekay’s life.  It is a book about coming of age. It is a book about loss and hardship.  It is about learning to stand up for what is clearly right even when it would seem that you may be standing all alone.  And regardless of how boring I have managed to make it sound, it is an amazing story of survival and hope.

  “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.”


Entry filed under: July 2012 reads. Tags: , , , , .

Ah the good old days – “Past Imperfect” by Julian Fellowes A bit of spit and polish and these will do nicely

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Nella  |  July 24, 2012 at 3:20 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and also found it very funny, especially since I am a South African. Bryce Courtenay grew up in SA and captured the spirit of the time perfectly. This is the best book he has written, in my opinion.


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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