Cry, the Beloved Country was written by Alan Paton, a supervisor of reformatories in South Africa, while he traveled in Europe and the United States studying our penal institutions. It was published (through the effort of good friends and some excited publishers) almost right away, in 1948.
Paton, himself white, weaves a tale of being black in South Africa before apartheid was signed into law. People were already devastated by the destruction of tribal communities, a segregated society ("it was not the custom" Paton says whenever a black man and a white man decline to touch each other) and the oppression of the poor by rich white farmers and financiers. It is a beautiful and painful book, full of hope and full of despair, a portrait of a culture on a knife's edge, which could be pushed in either direction.
Reading it now, with the rest of South Africa's history in mind, it terrifies me that voices like this should have been speaking so loudly and yet apartheid was still brought into law and ruled for decades. This is something we might want to keep in mind, here in the West, if we do not want fall into similar patterns.
The novel is full of beautiful language, as in this passage from which the title is taken: "Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much."
The single thought that moved me most was this: "The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again."
A strong theme of this story is forgiveness--dealing with the fact that we all do truly horrible things if we're not careful (and even if we are). Even our main character has at least two moments where he gives in to the temptation to be profoundly cruel and then isn't sure how to mend what he's done. I am used to a mind-set in which we try to avoid breaking things, but the truth is that we cannot do that, that things are already broken. What we can do is try to be people who mend the broken things—who pray for the drought-stricken valley of Ndotsheni or, if we are able, who bring the water back to it.