Paton’s novel follows the story of Steven Kumalo, an impoverished priest who is searching for his wayward son who left their homestead for the bright lights of Johannesburg, only to get lost in a life of crime. In fact the first half of the book reads like a detective story as Steven searches fruitlessly for his son, his sense of weariness and ennui gradually increasing as he is drawn further and further into the life of petty crime which his son has become a part of. Steven’s sense of discombobulation is exacerbated when he hears the news that his son is in jail for the murder of a white engineer who was a vocal supporter of native rights in South Africa and the rest of the novel deals with the fall out of the crime, including his sons execution and the drawing together between Steven and Jarvis, the father of the man who was murdered by Steven’s son.
If the above all sounds very straightforward then that is because the novel’s themes run much deeper than its plot. Interspersed with its exploration of the institutionalised racism of South African society are themes of faith, forgiveness and family, of the enduring power of love against ignominious hatred and of the indomitable and irrepressible beauty of South Africa , a beauty which often jolts the characters and readers into life. More than this however, the novel explores the continuity of life in spite of the tragedies which we are forced to endure; Jarvis grows as a person after he reads his son’s humanistic teachings and the lightness which existed in his son has been passed on to this grandson, who acts as a beacon against the darkness which overwhelmed Steven’s soul following his son’s incarceration and execution. ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ is a powerful exploration if life in a high racialized South Africa just as apartheid is about to forever drive a wedge between its black and white residents.