The Power of One

ISBN: 0385732546
ISBN 13: 9780385732543
By: Bryce Courtenay

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About this book

Episodic and bursting with incident, this sprawling memoir of an English boy's lonely childhood in South Africa during WW II pays moderate attention to questions of race but concerns itself primarily with epic melodrama.--Publishers Weekly.

Reader's Thoughts


I just finished reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay which was recommended to me by JK in our little cross country virtual book club. Divided into three parts, this is a story of a boy named Peekay coming of age in 1930-1950's South Africa. So, we've got major historical things happening - Boer War aftermath, Hitler Germany and WWII, the buddings of Apartheid. And then you have this really small boy going through hell at age 5 in a boarding school and learning at this infant stage in life how to survive. His power grows with each new and colorful mentor that he (and we) meets along the way. "First with the head and then with the heart," is his mantra throughout the story. There is little I love more than a good piece of fiction with brilliant and richly described narrative. I just found that a movie was made about the book in 1992... I'm definitely interested in checking it out but I don't want to ruin the absoloodle perfection of this story so I may skip it.


This is a powerful coming of age novel set in South Africa during WWII and immediately thereafter where the main character and narrator, Peekay, encounters forces good and evil that mold him into the man he is to become. Peekay is brilliant and determined and quite self-sufficient charting his own course with the help of several character building mentors. As the story unfolds and Peekay works to achieve success academically and to become the "welterweight champion of the world", the racial tension and the story of the Africans, the Afrikaners and the Englishmen in South Africa plays a large part in forming Peekay's character. And in all of his fights, literal and otherwise, I was deeply involved and became one of his "people".


Where, oh where do I start with this review? I noticed a few months ago that this book kept appearing in others' Favorites lists, impressed that it has such a following after 20 years. My overall verdict is that I derived some enjoyment from reading the book, at least in parts, but found it to be incredibly lacking and frustrating in others. Part of my issue with this book was that it was just plain written wrong. Not necessarily badly, just wrong. Had the entire story been written by a more adept author, it would have been, first, believable, and second, influential. *SPOILER ALERT!*When I started reading the story, I found the main character, Peekay, endearing. He was just the type of character that makes a book vivid and appealing. I enjoyed the beginning stories of Peekay and Nanny, of Peekay and Grandpa Chook, of the horrible Judge and Jury at boarding school, and especially enjoyed Peekay's introduction to boxing by Hoppie. But as soon as Peekay had his life's ambition set in stone (to be the Welterweight Champion of the World), my issues with the story began in earnest. I started with these questions:What was the purpose in Peekay's name? (The reader doesn't really find out. It's a gimmick. I think the author wanted the reader to divine that Peekay chose his own path, and thus his own name, his strange name of Peekay sets him apart from others and it's supposed to give weight to The Power of One title. All of these literary tools are fine and good when done correctly. Courtenay just doesn't deliver here.As I moved through the book, I started tallying up everything that Peekay could do (and do amazingly), and those things he failed at. Let's see:He had a magical chicken.He easily recognizes and can verbalize his distrust of Evangelicalism, and makes conscious decisions about his religious beliefs (starting at what, age 5?)He befriends much older people than himself and essentially lives in their world as a peer.He becomes an expert on succulents.He is by far the best student at school.He recognizes the cruelty inherent in Apartheid and racisim, despite being raised by a cooky Evangelical mother and incommunicative grandfather.He has an innate ability to connect with people of all races. Going along with this:He can speak about, oh, 5 different languages fluently.He is able to relate with prisoners and vice versa.He develops a highly functional letter-writing and smuggling operation in the prison.He finds the Crystal Cave of Africa with his best friend, Doc, who is about 80 years old. I can't even get into the whole "Crystal Cave of Africa" commentary. What was that about? Doc composes a piece that unites all the African tribes of prisoner in joyous song, a feat which Peekay instigated and the piece later becomes basically the "anthem" of Africa.He is essentially a Jesus like figure to the African people the entire way through the book. He is accepted into the elite academic team called "Sinjun's People" - there is no point to this story in the book, for it adds nothing to the mix aside from one more example of how amazing Peekay is.He is an excellent rugby player.He is an excellent chess player.He starts a school of literacy for black Africans.He can debate with his friend Morrie in the same unbelievable way that the Dawson's Creek kids could speak way too well for their age.He is naturally an expert mine worker.He wins EVERY SINGLE BOXING MATCH he has ever been in.He fails at nothing. These are just a sample of my observations (there is a word limit on these reviews).I was quickly tired of all these amazing things that Peekay could do, or be, or amount to. I was increasingly frustrated with Courtenay’s unforgivable mistakes. If only he had not written it in first person. If you have 500 pages of a small boy telling you how amazing he is, and how he is a legend to the people of Africa, then you start to think him a bit big for his britches. I felt like Courtenay had just read A Prayer for Owen Meany and decided to write a book about a smaller-than-average boy dealing with injustices and obstacles, who nonetheless overcomes his situation. (Is it a coincidence that Owen Meany was also published in 1989?) But the difference is that Owen Meany was written in third person. And it was written by Irving, who knows how to write about a savior-like figure and legend without instilling disbelief in the reader. And Irving doesn't choose such a predicable, non-descript title for his books, either. "The Power of One" could be the title to any Barnes & Noble featured self-help book on improving your self-image. It's a ridiculous concept for a boy of 5 to grasp and work toward all his life. And it's a crummy title for a fictional book.Finally, the ending. Oh, the ending. I sensed that Courtenay was done writing about Peekay, so he just gave up. He sent Peekay off to work in the mines. Peekay almost gets killed but miraculously doesn't. Frankly, I was wishing he would be killed because at least that ending would have reinforced the entire 500 page theme of "Peekay as a martyr for the African people." Oh wait - that would have been way too dangerously close to plagiarizing Owen Meany. So instead Peekay is recovering from the accident and, in the final pages of the book, encounters a crazed Botho, ironically the man on the other end of Peekay's extraordinary mining work - the man that has reaped the rewards and riches of Peekay's fantastic ability in the mines. Botho is out to kill Peekay (only because he is drug induced by the fumes of the mines) and, surprise, surprise, turns out to be the former childhood bully of Peekay's; the individual whose terror upon Peekay spawned the concept of "The Power of One" - to overcome adversity, depending only upon yourself. What irony - Peekay and "The Judge" (Botho) meet again in such circumstances! Once again, Courtenay has the chance to really set the story on edge and have Botho kill Peekay, thus shattering all hope of Peekay being the most amazing person that ever lived. Our fearless Peekay instead beats Botho to a pulp. And the book ends.That's it, it's over. All this talk about his number one goal of being Welterweight Champion of World. Courtenay doesn't even give the reader the courtesy of telling us how he accomplishes the goal.This book got me more worked up than others I have read, for the simple fact that the story really did have potential. It was a worthy piece of fiction that was destroyed by ineptitude. What a shame.


This is an amazing book. It is very well written, with wonderful characterization, and does a very good job of capturing the setting (WWII era South Africa, and the racial tensions therein).If I was asked to choose the books largest fault (and it *is* a large fault), oddly enough I would say that the largest fault is it's conscious handling of South Africa and Apartheid. Whenever the author tries to intentionally address these issues he veers too far into sentimentality and symbolism, and the threads of the book which address these issues go curiously incomplete at the end of the book (though perhaps this is not surprising, since the novel was published in the late eighties when Apartheid was still strong). The book is more about the main character, and his journey from the name "Pisskop" (the derogatory name given to him at an Afrikaans boarding school) to "Peekay" (the name he chooses for himself), and how he seeks his own life and individuality while moving through a deeply racist society which he does not always understand (especially in his youth).And it is here that the book does well at handling the issues of South Africa and Apartheid, because while the writing often becomes stilted when the author tries to directly address these issues, as a setting he does a remarkable job of capturing the little nuances and realities of racism in Africa.Well worth reading, and probably one of my favourite books (I was greatly pleased to see this on a list of "10 Great Books You've Probably Never Heard Of"). An excellent novel, with real insight into the racial tensions of the time, and amazingly enough he manages to make it an uplifting novel as well...


It is hard for me to find words to describe this book. I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the end, but that was only because of my desire to have it wrapped up and end with Peekay reaching his goal. But, that is not how life works and I think that is what Courtenay was getting at. I can't remember a book that I felt so invested in the character AND loved the writing. I also can't remember the last time I read a book that made me cry more than once. It was a beautiful coming of age tale that I was sad to see end and I can't stop thinking about it.


I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love a good title. The Power of One may seem obvious, especially after reading the book's jacket which says, "In this magical novel, an irresistible boy tells the story of his survival and coming of age against the background of South Africa during and just after World War II." The boy must be the One, right?Well, of course. He is. Little Peekay is sensitive boy. He gets, at an unusually young age, that some things matter and some don't and like any decent literary hero, the things that matter to him are the good things in life. Truth. Dignity. Honor. These virtues seem to come to him naturally, because his family life is sadly lacking. His mother is a negligent born-again who tears him away from the only mother he's ever known - a Zulu who talks to him, unlike his own blood relatives, and teaches him her ways. His love for her is a theme that carries throughout the novel.Which brings me back to the idea of the "One." This nurse-maid also becomes a "One." As the story follows Peekay throughout his life in a harsh South Africa, colorful characters all take their turn being powerful "one"s - or influences in Peekay's life. Peekay is the tie that holds this goodness together, but through him and with their collective help, that one became many and the many became one. It's a beautiful idea and masterfully told by Bryce Courtenay.If you read it, you'll fall in love with Peekay, his boxing mentor, Hoppie, Doc, and even a chicken, Grandpa Chook. You'll also learn a lot about boxing and the struggle between the Afrikaners and English as well as their mutual mistreatment of blacks in their country. Most importantly, you'll discover a boy who learns that anything can be accomplished if he does it "first with his head, then with his heart."


This is the story of Peekay, a frail, young, English boy growing up poor in South Africa and of his refusal to be demoralized by the racial torment surrounding him. On the road to becoming a young man he cultivates some uniquely, diverse friends and discovers many truths, not the least of which, are that loyalty, strength, love and compassion, coupled with a insatiable, thirst for knowledge and armed with the focus and courage to stay true to one's own self, can all be fused together, thus harnessing a power so potent that any worthy goal can and will be achieved. For me the message that rings out loudest and clearest in this story is how ridiculous racial hatred truly is.

Jessica Donaghy

I thoroughly enjoyed many elements of this book, and I learned a tremendous amount about boxing and the history of South Africa, through a child's eye view. However, my opinion took a downward plunge toward the end of the book -- specifically the final 5 pages of the book. I don't want to include any spoilers, but what on earth was the author thinking?!? I interpreted the book's message so differently from what is depicted in the final scene. Perhaps I owe the author a second reading. STRANGE!!!Update:Just downgraded my review from 3 to 2 stars. The more I think about the story and try to derive meaning from it, the madder I get!


** spoiler alert ** Of all the books I've read (with the exception of the Bible) this book has perhaps become most deeply engrained in my soul. I know that probably sounds rather trite, but I believe it to be so. Certainly I read it at the right time, as an impressionable freshman in high school. Despite our many differences, I found it easy to relate to the young english boy, Peekay, so out of place in WWII era South Africa, from his harrowing experiences in boarding school to becoming a famous boxer and pianist to working in a diamond mine and finally the showdown with a demon from his past. The friends he gains and loses still stick in my mind as archetypes for my own friendships, from Grandpa Chook the chicken to the big Russian miner, Rasputin. These friends help him to realize that the power he needs is within himself. Thanks for indulging me; I suppose ultimately we are all stars of our own personal drama and as far as I'm concerned Bryce Courtenay wrote this book to me. I want to thank Daniel for introducing me to this book.

Heather W

One of my favorite books! This is a truly inspirational historical fiction about of boyhood in South Africa at the birth of apartheid. Follow the life of a British child who comes of age amidst resentful Boers who are recovering from their own persecution while simultaneously championing the causes of Hitler in Germany. This precocious boy struggles to understand the clash of races and racism while simultaneously overcoming boundaries through the medium of competitive boxing.One perhaps could make the arguement that a tinge of racism lingers in the storyline itself due to the fact that the main character, a white boy, becomes the perceived savior and idol of the native African tribesmen (sort of like Ben Kingsley, a Brit, portraying Gandhi onscreen). However, it is still a wonderful book in which the reader becomes immersed in the story, place and time.


I found this book to be a mixed bag. For example, I loved the story of the main character's relationships with others, particularly with an old German professor who helps to shape his mind. However, I got bored with the focus on boxing, something I have no interest in but which permeated every aspect of the story. I thought the treatment of racial and cultural issues was excellent, especially the insights into struggles among the Boers, Afrikaners, and English settlers. On the other hand, I got tired of the story itself, which had five or six climaxes and denouments. I thought the author's treatment of South African nationalism was very good, and it helped me understand later issues of apartheid and Mandela. On the other hand, I really disliked the end, in which the main character finally gets revenge on a man who had tormented him when he was five years old. I wanted him to find redemption through his power to forgive rather than through the power of his fists. The narrator of the audiobook (which is how I "read" it)has a wonderful Australian accent and is very expressive, but reading this in print form might give you the chance to skip over the endless boxing scenes.

Norah Carroll

This is my boyfriend's favorite book, and I promised him I would read it in November 2011. It has been eighteen months since I made that promise, and since then I've picked up and set down The Power of One on at least four occasions. It wasn't until I reached the last third of the book that I found the story compelling enough to keep my attention.My biggest issue with the novel was the disproportionate amount of the book dedicated to telling the story of Peekay's early childhood. At times, the author went into so much detail that the story felt bogged down, and I fought paragraph by paragraph to advance to the next part of the story. In the end, I made it through the novel only by marking every twenty pages with a post-it note and assigning 20-page sections to myself each day.In retrospect, I appreciate the story for the work it does in telling the story of Peekay's relationships with the adults in his life who support him, characters who dedicate themselves almost entirely to his growth and success, characters I liked far more than the protagonist. These characters lived at the heart of the story, and their admiration (and often, reverence) for Peekay was satisfying if exaggerated.Not since high school have I gotten more pleasure out of having read a book than actually reading it, but I'm no worse for wear. And at least I kept my promise to my boyfriend!


I thought the book could have been tightened, better edited and shortened. I was not that interested in the boxing….. The ending (view spoiler)[, with Peekay’s old childhood enemy “The Judge” being the man he worked with in the copper mines, (hide spoiler)] seemed contrived; it felt like the neat ending was too nicely tied up. It felt fictional, although the novel is supposed to be autobiographical. I would have appreciated an author’s note that explained what was fictional and what was fact. Nevertheless it is not a bad read, and the audiobook, narrated by Humphrey Bower was excellently performed. The various characters were each marvelously distinct. I enjoyed learning about the racial inequalities that existed even before the Apartheid ever came into existence in South Africa, copper mining in Rhodesia and cacti. I have met “characters” which I fervently hope are real people – Doc and boxer “Hoppy Rundevald” (spelling questionable) and Geel Piet and Miss Boorstein. Actually, I came to like these people so much more than Peekay! No, it is not a bad book, but I expected more given all the rave reviews I have read. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>


** spoiler alert ** This book is a wonderful story of the hope and success of an underdog, of relationships breaking barriers of race, age, religion, wealth, and of a boy learning who he is and who he should be. I would really like to rate this book a 4.5. I loved about 500 pages of this book, but was disappointed with the ending. ***SPOILER ALERT*** For most of the book I really thought, this could really happen. And then, to make a "nice ending", of course it all comes full circle in the end and the frayed ends are all knotted. That just doesn't happen. Allowing Peekay to conquer the Judge in one simple fight left me very unsatisfied. The whole book I pulled for him to slowly, bit by bit, mature and conquer his childhood demons. It seems a little trite that with one fight, it's all over. Not to mention that the knife carving in the Judge was way over the top. Made me feel like Courtenay got so deep in the fascinating intricacies of the stories that he couldn't find a way out, got tired of writing, and tossed in that scene so I could get back to the other 15 or so books on my bookshelf... I may be a rare reader in that I would have much preferred being left not knowing what lies ahead for PK with the People, boxing, school, God, his friends, etc., hoping and cheering for him as he moves on to other things in life to continue his quest to discover himself and the world. I strive to be a forgiving soul, though, so I will not let the last 5 pages ruin the glorious journey I enjoyed with PK.


** spoiler alert ** Many people have given this book 5 stars, and I really wanted to like it. I tried very hard to love it... but there were some issues that I couldn't get past. ** Lots of spoilers ahead **OK - what I loved about the book - the deep love and respect for Africa, the characterization of the years leading up to Apartheid and how the animosity between English South Africans and Afrikaaners was still so strong so long after the war. I loved the writing style, particularly at the start of the book when I really felt like it had been written by a precocious 7 year-old with a naive view of the world (phrases like "Grandpa Chook thought all his Christmases had come at once!"). And I pretty much loved all the supporting characters, even the bad guys. I really appreciated the way the author gave perspective to the bad guys in the story by giving each a bit of backstory and context in the relationships between Afrikaaners, English and "blacks" (as used in the book).HOWEVER. I couldn't get past all the violence in the book. Now, I know a lot of it was contextual and represents what happened at the time and the world needs to know about the vicious treatment of black Africans during that era. I was fine reading those scenes because I knew they represented real events and even though it's confronting, people like us need to know it happened.What I couldn't stomach was all the boxing and the bullying. OK, I know that was the whole theme of the book. But I can't stand boxing to start with, and the idea of 12 year-olds beating the crap out of each other (inside or outside of an official ring) made me sick. But what made me the most sick was the neglect of Peekay as a tiny 5-7 year old child, being sent to boarding school with no-one to advocate for him, and I think the worst part of that whole period of the book was not so much the bullying at the school (which was horrible) but the fact that his mother (who had apparently recovered enough from her nervous breakdown by then to come home) and grandfather expected a 6-year-old boy to make a 2-DAY TRAIN TRIP BY HIMSELF??????? That to me was almost the most shocking and gut-wrenching part of the book. Of course, being the hero, he made it just fine, but in real life that child would have been abducted faster than you can say "unaccompanied minor". The very notion gave me the creeps, and there wasn't anything that his mother or grandfather did later in the book to make up for it.I also didn't like that the final scene was a vicious, torturous revenge act (against the Judge) - I thought that was completely unnecessary and showed that he hadn't learned a thing from any of his mentors. How was that act "first with the head, then with the heart"?And another thing - it's supposed to be all about "The Power of One", but that kid wouldn't have made it anywhere without all his mentors, from the first train conductor to Doc and all his teachers. It should be called "The Power of Having a Great Team to Back You Up".One thing I really loved though, is that I listened to the book on audiobook, and it was narrated by Humphrey Bower who was brilliant. He mastered all the various accents (boer, english south african, german, proper british, zulu, etc) in such a wonderful way that I couldn't help but keep listening. I think it may be one of the few books in which I loved the narration but wasn't that impressed with the story.

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