Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

A teacher discovers that sixty years after its publication, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country still stirs deep emotions about fathers and errant sons.


Conceived in South Africa; handwritten in Norway, Sweden, and England; and finished in northern California–Alan Paton’s acclaimed novel Cry, the Beloved Country was championed, and typed into manuscript form, by a couple residing in Fairfax, California.

First published sixty years ago, the novel continues to be assigned by many English teachers. I’m one of those teachers.

Unlike the young adults who read the novel, my students range in age from their mid-20s to their early 50s–and they do not return to home and hearth at the end of the school day. The predicaments poetically delivered by the novel resonate, because my students measure their days not in semesters but in prison terms–in the sentences they are completing at a correctional institution in Connecticut.

And so their English Composition sentences draw on a more varied life experience.

Almost all of them (to one degree or another) identified with story’s incarcerated son, Absalom Kumalo–a victim of circumstances, as well as extremely bad associations and grievously bad judgment. And almost all of my inmate-students were touched profoundly by the suffering borne by Absalom’s father, Parson Stephen Kumalo. They would quip, “Man, even convicted felons have feelings.”

What struck me was the “envy” they felt for the son–not for his fatal associations, fatal judgment and fatal predicament, to be sure, but for the emotions that came from his father, whose grief was mixed with self-examination.

The parson, Stephen Kumalo, tries to sort through his fears and feelings regarding his son:

…But that he should kill…. There was nothing that he could remember, nothing, nothing at all, that could make it probable….

…where had they failed? What had they done, or left undone, that their son had become a thief, moving like a vagabond from place to place, living with a girl who was herself no more than a child, father of a child who would have no name?

With a shudder he turned from contemplation of so terrible a thing…. For there was nothing, nothing in all the years at Ndotsheni, nothing in all the years of the boyhood of his son, that could make it possible for him to do so terrible a deed.

After reading Cry, the Beloved Country, a particularly thoughtful and articulate 41-year-old inmate wrote, “I can’t begin to express the quiet storm that stirs inside me every time I find myself comparing a father-son story with my own.”

This inmate went on to write:

It’s an almost indescribable emptiness of being disconnected. More often than not, the father-son relationship is one I can’t relate to, for the father-son relationships in so many books and movies somehow resolve themselves favorably. And that resolution is something I can’t relate to–it’s the opposite of what continues for me, it’s the opposite of my contact, my lack of contact.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, we read of Absalom’s plea, his consistent plea, that though he did commit the terrible crime, he did not intend to commit the crime. Those words echoed my plea eighteen years ago.

But that is where the comparison stops: Thankfully, I did not receive Absalom’s sentence. Sadly, I did not receive the compassion he did from his father.

Though brief, the interaction between Absalom and his father is actually fascinating despite the prison setting, despite the dire circumstances–maybe all the more fascinating because of the setting and the circumstances. Their reunion stirred feelings and thoughts–sadness and regret. I didn’t really want to be reminded of my particular snapshot of a father-son encounter. But at the same time there was something between Absalom and his father that I’ve longed for just an ounce of. It was the love and the concern Stephen Kumalo still had and showed for his son, Absalom, even though the father had been so disappointed and hurt by Absalom’s conduct in Johannesburg. For me, those scenes are as profound as the Pacific Ocean. Stephen Kumalo was there for his son, and that is what matters most, despite–especially since–Absalom had fallen so far from living the life his father had hoped, expected.

The inmate explained that “for Stephen Kumalo to take the journey to his son was outstanding,” for the trip and the life of Johannesburg were so alien to the father’s ways. There were levels of fear he had to overcome. He was traveling well beyond the setting and life he had known and was comfortable with; he was traveling into unknown territory on several levels and had to counsel himself and allay his fears. He traveled to the worst sections of Johannesburg even as his fears grew. He went anyway, for he had to know, he had to make a connection even in the worst of circumstances. The inmate wrote:

How many fathers could do that?

What was it that Stephen Kumalo had, that other fathers do not have?

What was it that Stephen Kumalo had for his son, that other fathers do not feel for their sons?

What drove Stephen Kumalo to take that trip to discover what he progressively feared to discover?

What holds other fathers back from taking a trip to see about their sons?

It’s love, I think. Love is the ticket or passport to that kind of journey.

Maybe, Kumalo’s trip and compassion are the stuff of fiction. Is that kind of love the stuff of fiction?

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