Books signify much more than shelf adornment in this novel. They are potential instruments of emancipation from customary prejudice. Books come up in several key moments throughout the story: the little girl who delivers the fateful letter to Rev. Stephen Kumalo's house in Cry, the Beloved Country is astonished to see "many books, more even than the books of the school." When James Jarvis sits in his dead son's chair he too is astonished: "Books, books, books, more books than he had ever seen in a house." And when the South African security police entered Alan Paton's home in 1960 to search it, he heard one exclaim: "Kyk, die boeke!" (Look at all the books!).
Library of Dreams The books in Arthur Jarvis' study not only tell us about his character and reflect his outlook, browsing in them serves to open his father's eyes and influence the actions he undertakes in his son's memory. The variety of books in Arthur Jarvis' fictional study, also certainly reflect Alan Paton's personal interests. There are books of poems and books about religion, books about crime and criminals, and books on South African birds. While writing the Jarvis episodes in book two, Paton was also attending a conference in Washington, D.C. He recalls that he visited the Lincoln Memorial and "stood with awe before the seated figure of one of the greatest men in history. Surely the greatest of all the rulers of nations." Wishing to associate his character with Lincoln's spirit of liberty, he accords him a portrait of Lincoln for his wall and a bookcase of books. These draw James Jarvis to read "Gettysburg Address" and "Second Inaugural" and to be moved by their spirit.
United by Language Arthur Jarvis' library also includes many books in Afrikaans (whose titles convey nothing to Arthur's father). Afrikaans, a dialect of Dutch, was widely spoken by descendents of the early settlers, except in some urban areas, like Johannesburg, and in the former British colony of Natal. There, most whites spoke only English, and most Africans spoke Zulu. The Kumalo and Jarvis families came from Natal—as Alan Paton did. Therefore, when Stephen Kumalo's train enters the Transvaal, the railroad signs mean as little to him as the book titles do later to James Jarvis. Unlike the two fathers in the novel, Arthur Jarvis has learned to speak Afrikaans—as Paton himself had done (by spending time on an Afrikaans farm). In this context, learning Afrikaans shows a step toward becoming a more complete South African. In the same way, books in Cry, the Beloved Country become a way to heal the rift between all races, a way to find a common ground.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013