The Power of One

ISBN: 1876584858
ISBN 13: 9781876584856
By: Bryce Courtenay

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About this book

No stranger to the injustice of racial hatred, five-year-old Peekay learns the hard way the first secret of survival and self-preservation - the power of one. An encounter with amateur boxer Hoppie Groenewald inspires in Peekay a fiery ambition - to be welterweight champion of the world.

Reader's Thoughts

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.


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.


** 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.


This is the story of Peekay, a young boy growing up in South Africa before, during, and after World War II, and the good people he met along his way to becoming the welterwieght boxing champion of the world. The memorable characters included (among many) Giel Peet, an imprisoned black man who taught Peekay to box; Doc, a gentle 6'7" German professor who taught Peekay to love nature and music and books; and, Miss Boorstein, a brilliant Jewish teacher who fostered Peekay's intellectual genius through her guidance and tutoring. I learned many things in this book- the complex art of boxing, how bad and inhumane apartheid is, and how much more I might have accomplished if I had grown up in an era where there was no television or other distractions. I know I would have read more and practised that piano more and given of myself more as well. I also find myself wishing for those mentors like Peekay's who saw the great promise he had and gently guided him to his full potential. Through this book I also learned to appreciate the idea of the "voice" of the writer. The book began when Peekay was about five and ended when he was about 18. Along the way his words slowly matured and changed from that of a young child to that of an educated young man. Finally, I had no idea how bad apartheid is. I had heard talk of it, but did not really understand the indignities the colored race suffered in South Africa at the hand of the ruling white race. Racism is bad and I think we are to fight it wherever and whenever we encounter it or at least try to help our fellow man like Peekay did.


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.


When talking about The Power of One, it is easy to be distracted by "the power of one" itself and place ultimate importance on Peekay's slippery personal philosophy. But to do so to the exclusion of all else but racism is to read only a small portion of Bryce Courtenay's masterwork.The Power of One also deals with class, religion, science, obsession, faith vs. reason, objectivism, homosocial intimacy, and in one of the finest literary expressions of its kind, the importance of violence.Peekay's use of violence is controlled and seemingly benevolent, but he doesn't just use violence, he needs violence. It is the very basis of his obsession with becoming the Welterweight Champion of the World. It is at the root of everything he fights for and against. And it is the question and the answer to the defining struggle of Peekay's life.One need only look to the final pages of The Power of One for the answer to the question. Peekay savagely destroys Botha, the Judge that started him on the road to violence; while Peekay is violent in self defense, he perpetrates his violence with a ruthlessness and controlled savagery that dwarfs any of his childhood persecutions at the Judge's hands. The final, brutal mutilation of Botha -- an act that likely raises few eyebrows amongst readers directed as it is at a symbol we consider pure evil -- is an overtly violent catharsis that brings peace to Peekay's spirit (but not an end to his need for violence). It is difficult to see Peekay's conquering of Botha as anything but just. Not only is Botha responsible for the abuse that dehumanized Peekay as a child (although Botha was a child himself at the time of the abuse) and about to take Peekay's life, but Courtenay overdetermines Botha's desert by making him a branded acolyte of Adolph Hitler, a Nazi racist who is apparently beyond redemption.But beneath and behind this easy rationalization of Peekay's violence is an important commentary on our need for violence.Violence isn't something that we need to erase from human behavior because we actually need it -- especially on a personal level where it is most in danger of being sterilized from our lives (already it is only an appropriate response in our popular mythology). Violence is something we need to control and embrace and realize is part of who we are as humans. Violence is essential to both men and women. Violence is an integral part of our humanity.Violence of the kind Peekay engages in against Botha serves several purposes: it is defensive; it is purifying; it is redemptive; it is responsible; it is empowering; and it is healing.Many find themselves supporting Peekay's actions without a second thought. But were a similar situation to play out in our North American reality, Peekay would find himself going to prison for a very long time, and most would agree that while he was defending himself at first, Peekay took things too far and deserves to be punished. Amongst its many concerns, The Power of One tells us that we need to reconsider our personal relationship with violence. It reminds us that we need to keep violence as a tool of our own, rather than passing it off as a tool for our governments, our armies, or any other persecutors who may use it against us. And so long as we use violence "first with our head, then with our heart" it can lead to positive change. Even if we never use violence ourselves, however, even if we only admit that we are violent animals who need violence as deeply as we need love making or tenderness, even if all we do is recognize its place in our human natures, we can start to overcome things that before we simply let overcome us.


Although this book is really not much at all like the movie (which I highly recommend watching, one of my favorites), it was still a great book. At times, it was a little hard to get into - a lot of talking about boxing, which I don't really care too much about, but in the end it was totally worth it for me. I think this is one of the only books that has ever made me cry, meriting the five stars. Something very near the end caught me off guard and really touched me, bringing me to tears. It felt nice to have that happen while reading.


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.


This is one of the most important books I have ever read. The reader really gets pulled into the life of PK, experiencing his trials and successes. There are some great laugh out loud moments, such as during his train ride with Big Hettie, and when Granpa Chook decides to express his opinion of The Judge and his Nazi party (though the surrounded circumstance is sad and grim). There are also some very dark times in his life, but these serve to prove the triumph of the human spirit and so are a valuable part of the story. One of the lessons I took away from the book was the value in accepting people how they are, no matter if their beliefs or behavior aligns with what you perceive as right or wrong. You can stay true to yourself and be kind to others without changing them.

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!

Karen Klink

I don't usually review a book unless there is something about it that grips me more than usual. This one had a lot going for it, in spite of the information that repeated two or three times, which should never have got past the editor and likely would not have these days.The ending nearly spoiled the entire story for me. The story and the boy, had one major goal that he was determined to reach for the entire novel, one that was repeated throughout no matter what happened to him. I would make a great deal of sense to me if, once a character changed and grew into something more than he had been in the beginning, that goal would finally change into something perhaps more worthwhile. That did not happen here. Not only was the goal never reached in the book, but the author turned the ending to one of merely revenge and violence--a horrible beating of the character (now an adult) who had bullied our protagonist when he was a child. That is where the so-called Power of One is supposed to triumph? This was the most disappointing ending I have ever read.


Unbelievable book. I was hooked from the first few pages. Poor Peekay. This kid went through more horrific stuff by the time he was 10 years old than anybody should experience in a lifetime. And he just keeps on going. And going, and going. You have to love this kid. Great story that opened my life to a culture I was not at all familiar with. Terrific ending. You can’t not like this book. But don’t watch the movie, huge let down.


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."


** 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.


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.

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