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The Power of One
The Power of One is a bildungsroman written by Bryce Courtenay, first published in 1989. Set in 1930s and 1940s South Africa and later on in the story, Northern Rhodesia, it tells the story of a boy named Peekay. It is written from the first person perspective, with Peekay narrating (as an adult, looking back) and trusting the reader with his thoughts and feelings, as opposed to a detailed description of places and account of actions.
It has been adapted into a film and into a Young Reader's Edition, which stops about half way through the adult version, omits several explicit scenes and uses a simpler vocabulary. It was written after Bryce Courtenay received streams of letters from school teachers begging him to write a version suitable for primary school children.
Peekay's views on himself as a young boy are generally ironic, and he often pokes fun at his own misconceptions and misunderstandings. However, as the book progresses, the tone becomes more serious as Peekay speaks about the trials and tragedies of his young adulthood. He often harshly criticises his own actions and is less forgiving than when he spoke of himself as a child.
Soon after his mother's breakdown, however, Peekay, an English speaker, is sent to an Afrikaner boarding school. The only English speaking boy in the entire school, Peekay soon becomes the target for Afrikaner boys seeking to vent their rage against the British for the atrocities against the Afrikaners in the Boer War.
He is bullied and teased by everyone at the school, but most of all by an older boy, Jaapie Botha , "The Judge". An ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, The Judge believed that Hitler would drive the rooineks (Afrikaans slang for the British) into the sea. Peekay receives no help from the head teacher of the boarding school, Mevrou , (Afrikaans: Madam), who beats him with her sjambok in an attempt to cure his bedwetting. He quickly earns the name "Pisskop", pisshead, for this habit.
After his first year of school, Peekay returns to his grandfather's chicken farm in the Natal province. His nanny arranges for a famous chief, Inkosi Inkosikazi , to come and cure Peekay of his "night water". Inkosi Inkosikazi not only solves this problem, but he also opens Peekay's mind to a place of dreaming, a place of waterfalls and stones, where Peekay may always find him. He also shows Peekay a trick he can play with chickens, where he puts them inside a circle drawn in the dust. Peekay keeps one of the chickens Inkosi Inkosikazi shows him in the trick, and names the chicken Grandpa Chook , after a slang term he heard his Australian cousins say once.
Grandpa Chook becomes Peekay's only school friend. Mevrou at first tries to kill and eat him, but, however, after Grandpa Chook shows his aptitude at catching cockroaches, Mevrou allows him to stay.
To try and ward of The Judge and his "stormtroopers", Peekay adopts a "camouflage", whereby he hides his intellectual brilliance. He also does The Judge's homework for him. To thank Peekay for this, The Judge says he will ask Hitler to spare him.
At the end of the second year, The Judge rounds up Peekay and Grandpa Chook and takes them to the large jacaranda tree in the school. He shoots Grandpa Chook with a catapult and forces Peekay to eat human faeces.
Traumatised from this experience, Peekay yearns to be back in the arms of his nanny. However, Mevrou informs him that he will not be returning to Natal and to nanny, rather, he will be going to the East Transvaal town of Barberton, where his grandfather lives.
On the train to Barberton, Peekay is chaperoned by Hoppie Groenewald , the boxing champion of the South African railways. Hoppie shows Peekay his boxing gloves and teaches him a few basic punches. He also invites Peekay to come and watch him box Jackhammer Smit in Gravelotte, a town on the way to Barberton.
Hoppie emerges victorious, and teaches Peekay a maxim that will stay with him forever:
Peekay announces that he will not stop training and boxing until he becomes welterweight champion of the world.
Arriving at Barberton, Peekay meets his mother, who has become a born-again Christian. Much to his sadness, he discovers that Dee and Dum , the two teenage Shangaan girls who worked as maids back at Peekay's old house, have been made to convert to Christianity by his mother. His beloved nanny was fired because she refused to convert and in anger, Peekay screams to his mother that "the Lord is a shithead!".
During a hike into the veld behind his new house, Peekay meets German professor of music and amateur botanist Karl von Vollensteen , who introduces himself as Doc, and takes a photograph of Peekay. The two soon become good friends, and, with Peekay's mother's permission, begins to teach the young boy both piano and botany. Peekay helps tend Doc's cactus garden.
Both Doc and Peekay become friends with Barberton's librarian, Mrs. Boxall .
However, just as World War II begins, Doc is arrested for failing to register as an enemy alien in wartime. However, when the arresting officer comes into Doc's house, and attempting to emulate a scene from a movie, pours whisky onto the keys of Doc's Steinway, Doc attacks him, but not before the officer kicks up at Doc. Accidentally hitting Peekay, he breaks jaw, which needs to be wired.
Sentenced to stay in prison for the duration of the war, Peekay goes to visit Doc in prison. The commandant of the prison, an Afrikaner who greatly admires German culture, gives Doc preferential treatment and allows him to keep his cactus garden in the courtyard.
The commandant hears of Peekay's boxing aspiration, and arranges him to be taught by a Cape Coloured man, Geel Piet (Afrikaans: Yellow Peter). Geel Piet becomes a close friend of Peekay's, and transforms Peekay into an astounding boxer.
Peekay, who feels compassion and sympathy for the appallingly treated black prisoners, helps Geel Piet organise an intricate black market scheme, smuggling tobacco and letters from family members into the prison. As a result, many of the prisoners take an almost religious view of Peekay, calling him Onoshobishobi Ingelosi, the Tadpole Angel.
Peekay also helps arrange a concert for Doc in the prison, and convinces the commandant to allow some singing from the black prisoners, too. On the night of the concert, Peekay notices the Geel Piet has not shown up, and goes to find him. He finds Geel Piet's bloody body lying in the gymnasium. A white warder, Borman, sadistically bludgeoned him to death with his baton.
After the end of the war, Doc is freed and Peekay begins to develop his intellect. With the help of Mrs. Boxall, Ms. Bornstein (his Jewish schoolteacher) and Doc, he acquires a great knowledge of cacti, chess, literature and music. He wins the East Transvaal under-twelves title and wins a scholarship to the prestigious Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg.
At the school, Peekay quickly makes friends with Hymie Levy , the son of a Jewish millionaire. The calculating Levy combines his financial skill with Peekay's boxing skill to devise numerous "scams" that make them both rich.
Reforming the pathetic school boxing team, they earn enough money to afford lessons for Peekay from South Africa's best boxer, Solly Goldman . Though he excels at rugby, boxing and academic pursuits, even becoming one of the headmaster's personal favourites, Peekay does not win the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford that he hoped for.
Returning to Barberton after his final year at the Prince of Wales School, Peekay goes on one last expedition with Doc. They find a cave, which Doc dubs the "Crystal Cave of Africa". Doc lies down on a large pillar, and speaks about his impending death. Peekay gets frightened, tells Doc that he is speaking nonsense and urges him to come out of the cave. Inside, however, he knows that Doc is growing old and must pass on soon.
When Doc disappears without trace several days afterwards, Peekay knows exactly where he is, and, knows what Doc would have wanted, decides not to visit the cave ever again, and never to tell anyone else of it.
At the end of his school career, Peekay decides to make some money by travelling to Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) to work as a copper miner. Getting an extremely dangerous (but high paying) job as a "grizzly man", working on large machines that process the copper, Peekay builds up his body so that he may become better at boxing.
He forms a close friendship with a towering Russian named Rasputin . Rasputin, who speaks little English, eventually sacrifices his own life to save Peekay's during a mining disaster.
Before leaving Northern Rhodesia for good, however, he goes to say goodbye to his partner, Botha. However, just before he leaves, he finds out that Botha is none other than The Judge, who tortured him during his childhood. In a drunken rage, The Judge attacks Peekay, but Peekay, using techniques Geel Piet taught him back in Barberton prison, beats his tormenter. He takes the knife that Doc gave him as a present and carves "P K" and a crude Union Jack over the swastika tattoo on The Judge's arm.
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