This is an extremely powerful book. I found it both uplifting and disturbing. The book was written in 1989 and is the story of a boy named Peekay who grows up in South Africa during WWII. He witnesses the seeds of apartheid take root and turn into racial hatred. In spite of this, he manages to develop both intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually by drawing from what he calls the power of one, which is essentially self-reliance and believing in yourself. It’s a fairly long novel, but it never gets dull and it held my interest from cover to cover.
There is a lot that I can say about this book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just focus on a few key points. I want to start on a personal note—this book hit very close to home for me. As a young boy, Peekay finds himself the target of brutal bullying. He tries various ways to placate his tormenters but at best he gets only a temporary reprieve. He carries these experiences with him and those experiences directly impact the decisions he makes. As someone who was bullied as a child, I am painfully aware of how this feels. For years I carried my pain and resentment, playing out imaginary scenarios where I confronted my tormenters and finally got even. Thankfully, I eventually realized how toxic this attitude is and learned how to let go of my resentment. But reading this certainly brought back the feelings for me. Anyone who has ever suffered the anguish of being bullied knows how this feels and will always remember it.
A significant portion of the story takes place in a prison setting. There is a great passage where Peekay describes his impression upon first seeing a prison. It is almost like the structure itself is an archetype for bondage, suffering, and the loss of freedom.
My eyes followed a long line of purple that led beyond the houses clustered on the edge of the town to a square of dark buildings surrounded by a high wall perhaps a mile into the valley. The walls facing me stood some three stories high and were studded with at least 150 tiny dark windows all of the same size. The buildings too were built in a square around a center quadrangle of hard brown earth. On each corner of the outside wall was a neat little tower capped with a pyramid of corrugated iron that glinted in the early morning sun. I had never seen a prison, nor had I even imagined one, but there is a racial memory in man that instinctively knows these things. The architecture of misery has an unmistakable look and feel about it.
This book is rich with mystical metaphors and symbolism. One of these that I found inspiring is the cactus as a symbol for the manifestation of God. It’s a somewhat long passage but worth including in this post.
The Almighty conceived the cactus plant. If God would choose a plant to represent him, I think he would choose of all plants the cactus. The cactus has all the blessings he tried, but mostly failed, to give to man. Let me tell you how. It has humility, but it is not submissive. It grows where no other plant will grow. It does not complain when the sun bakes its back or the wind tears it from the cliff or drowns it in the dry sand of the desert or when it is thirsty. When the rains come it stores water for the hard times to come. In good times and bad it will still flower. It protects itself from danger, but it harms no other plant. It adapts perfectly to almost any environment. It has patience and enjoys solitude. In Mexico there is a cactus that flowers only once every hundred years and at night. This is saintliness of an extraordinary kind, would you not agree? The cactus has properties that heal the wounds of men and from it come potions that can make man touch the face of God or stare into the mouth of hell. It is the plant of patience and solitude, love and madness, ugliness and beauty, toughness and gentleness. Of all plants, surely God made the cactus in his own image?
(pp. 154 – 155)
Probably the single most powerful symbol in this book is the cave, which is called the crystal cave because of the mineral deposits within. It conjures images of the crystal cave from the Merlin mythology. The cave represents the inner self, a sanctuary within, a secret place of hidden beauty. It is also a place of transition, the passage between life and death. There is also an emphasis on the importance of keeping the cave secret, since your inner self and the source of mystical power must be protected. There is a great passage where Peekay uses visualization, in the same way that a shaman would, to enter the crystal cave.
I took a deep breath and launched myself from the rock; the cool air mixed with spray rushed past my face. I hit the pool at the bottom of the first waterfall. The sound of the splash drowned in the roar of the water. I surfaced to be swept over the second of the falls and then again over the third, landing in the deep pool of swirling green water. I fought my way to the surface and struck out toward the first of the black stones. Pulling myself up onto it, I hurriedly jumped from one stone to another, finally leaping for the pebbly beach beyond. I felt my toes and the ball of my foot touch the smooth round river pebbles, and as I landed I found myself inside the crystal cave of Africa.
As I said, this is an incredible book and one that is worth reading. In addition, while I was in a bookstore recently, I saw that The Power of One was on the “banned books” shelf, and I have always felt that any book that is worth banning is worth reading.