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The Power of One

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In 1939, as Hitler casts his enormous, cruel shadow across the world, the seeds of apartheid take root in South Africa. There, a boy called Peekay is born. His childhood is marked by humiliation and abandonment, yet he vows to survive and conceives heroic dreams, which are nothing compared to what life actually has in store for him. He embarks on an epic journey through a land of tribal superstition and modern prejudice where he will learn the power of words, the power to transform lives and the power of one.

544 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1989

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About the author

Bryce Courtenay

54 books1,854 followers
I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79.

Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,747 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews15 followers
April 27, 2017
Wow... incredible!!!
I fell in love with Peekay even 'before' he was five years old, starting in South Africa, when he shares of being nursed from his lovely black nanny before being sent to boarding school. ( although we follow him from age 5 to 20 - from the late 1930's to mid 40's).

Our oldest daughter attended a boarding High School in Michigan for a short time -an academic/arts school. The family separation was painful. I can't begin to imagine sending a 5 year old away to a boarding school even in the 'best' of conditions.
And the fact that this story is inspired by the authors real life....for me, this is one of the most wrenching parts of the entire book...."being sent away from his family at age 5 -- from 'love' he was receiving to 'hatred' he was walking into.

Peekay is bullied and abused almost immediately upon arrival as a 5 year old at his boarding school. He's the youngest child in the school.
Missing the comfort of his Black nanny ( Peekay is English and white), who would soothe his hurts...missing his mother who was sent away due to a nervous breakdown, Peekay was the first live example of the congenital hate they carried for his kind.
"The Boer War had created great malevolent feelings against the English, who were called the 'rooineks'. It was a hate that had entered the Afrikaner bloodstream and pocked the hearts and minds of the next generation".
Given that Peekay, spoke English, he pronounced sentences that killed their grandfathers and grandmothers to the world's first concentration camps. Little Peekay had no advance warning that he was wicked before coming to the school.

One of the other kids - called 'Judge' abused Peekey regularly. Peekay even made a deal with him to do the Judge's homework and make sure he didn't fail-- but he still continues to abuse him. - really 'tortured him.
We see how Peekay begins to survive- horrific conditions at such a young tender age: Peekay says:
"One thing got to them more than anything else. They could make me cry. Even the Judge, with all of the fear he could provoke, could not make me cry. I suspect they even began to admire me a bit. Many as them brothers my age at home, and they knew how easy it is for a five-year-old to cry. In fact, I had turned six but nobody had told me, so in my head, I was still five".
"Not being able to cry was the hardest part for me as well. Crying can't be a good camouflage. In truth, my willpower had very little to do with my resolve never to cry. I had learned a special trick and, in the process, had somehow lost the knack of turning on the tap".

Peekay is a diamond in the rough....an inspiring character. He's smart, open minded, and doesn't have an ounce of bitterness or hatred in him. He develops meaningful friendships with teachers and mentors who teach him to read. He meets a healer, and a boxer. We learn a tremendous amount about boxing. We also learn a lot about the history of South Africa through the eyes of a child.

The themes of discrimination were well defined by the author: the Boers vs. the English - South Africans vs. the Germans - the Jews vs. the Germans - white Africans vs. the Black Africans.
Violence is graphic - so be warned.

It's a cruel and beautiful world we live in!
Profile Image for Matt.
3,727 reviews12.8k followers
May 26, 2018
The dazzling writing style of Bryce Courtenay is captured in this, his debut novel. Its intricate prose and powerful characters bring a story to life that few readers will be able to resist. In rural South Africa during the late 1930s, Peekay is a young boy who has been sent to boarding school. With English roots, Peekay struggles in this school where the Boer boys ridicule him for his heritage, turning verbal pokes into full-on malicious attacks. With war building in Europe, Peekay is led to believe by classmates that Hitler will soon arrive in South Africa to toss the shackles from the Afrikaner people, long subjugated by the English. After a number of brush-ups with others, the matron agrees to send Peekay to his grandfather’s home, a long train ride across the country. Eager to leave, Peekay begins the long train ride, soon joined by the conductor, Hoppie Groenewald. This new friend helps Peekay with the ways of the rails, as well as being an amateur boxer in his own right. Peekay develops a passion for boxing and attends a bout where Hoppie is set to meet a much larger opponent, all during the train’s layover. Peekay is astonished when he sees Hoppie box, as well as the passion that others feel about the sport. From there, it is back on the train, where Peekay must survive the rest of the journey without his dear Hoppie. Arriving at his grandfather’s home, Peekay has distant memories of life with his family, including two young kitchen maids who keep him entertained. As he tried to acclimate to life in rural South Africa, Peekay befriends a highly interesting man, one Professor ‘Doc’ Karl von Vollensteen. Doc is a former concert pianist from Germany whose interest in botany piques Peekay’s curiosity, allowing him to further his education in a less formal setting. War continues to rage and South African officials choose to detain Doc, citing his German heritage as an issue that cannot be overlooked. While incarcerated, Doc continues to share his passion of music with Peekay and the other prisoners, many of whom are poor blacks. Straddling the middle, Peekay is able to forge strong friendships with the prisoners, who respect him for not treating them as lower class citizens, as well as with the guards, who help hone is boxing skills. Still young, Peekay must sell his abilities as a boxer to those who will help shape him into the athlete he hopes to become. Peekay’s passion for learning helps him excel in school and he’s sent off to yet another boarding school, but remains close to all those who have helped him along his path. The reader can easily become lost in Courtenay’s fabulous narrative that continues to twist from here, adding depth and insight to an already powerful tale. Highly recommended for those who love complex stories that touch on history and coming of age. How do I feel about the book? As Professor von Vollensteen would say, “for this I give... eleven out of ten. Absoloodle!”

Those who have not experienced a Bryce Courtenay novel are in for a treat with this piece. Not only does the reader have the opportunity to experience Courtenay’s first foray into writing but also experience his unique style, which combines well-developed characters with a plot that is rich with detail. Some may find his writing to be both excessive and too much to digest in a single novel, but it is this that makes the books even more enjoyable. Courtenay uses an interesting formula in his writing, which the attentive reader will discover as they meander throughout his novels, this one being no exception. There are scores of characters who cross the pages, each serving to develop their own backstory and to offer a slice of character revelation for the protagonist, Peekay. While the reader will notice strong ties between Peekay and one character in the early portion of the book, that individual will soon vanish, though their life lessons and impact are felt throughout the rest of the story. Courtenay inundates the reader with names and characteristics, which may cause some to stumble or require crib notes, but, rest assured, it is well worth the temporary confusion. Having read all of Courtenay’s novels, I can see character themes that reemerge, including token characters of a variety of backgrounds. The story itself becomes a tale full of twists and turns, such that the path on which the narrative is leading the reader soon changes, leaving what one might have expected to be left in the proverbial dust. This is also something that some may criticise, but I find this serpentine journey to be refreshing and forces the reader to remain engaged, rather than skim through parts of the story. As Courtenay calls this piece his loose attempt at a fictionalised autobiography (yes, the dichotomy of the statement is not lost on me), the historic moments and struggles are more than conjured up dramatisations from world events, but actual experiences that Courtenay felt. One can only imagine the strife in which South Africa found itself in the late 1930s and into the 40s. The Afrikaner population is still smarting as they are being regulated by the English, but they, too, have developed a sense that, perhaps, Hitler can come to save them and return the land to the rightful Boers. Peekay feels this throughout the novel, an English boy tossed amongst the strong-willed Afrikaners who look down upon him. However, there is also the theme of brewing apartheid, which has been loosely permitted for decades already. Courtenay’s narrative shows the subjugation of the black population and the brutality that is inflicted upon them. While I do not condone this whatsoever, I have always been very interested in the apartheid mentality and how the Afrikaners justified it to the world. Courtenay offers up a front row seat to the reader, hoping they will better understand what went on. As an aside, the book’s publication came just as the grip of apartheid was loosening, so it may be an educational piece to those who could not fathom the true horrors of the policy as it gained momentum and became a way of life. It is this sort of depth that has drawn me to all of Courtenay’s books, as he offers more than a superficial look at the world, which entertaining the reader. True, his books are long and tangential, but, like a well-paced journey, they permit the reader to gather many wonderful nuggets of information from page to page. As a friend commented to me recently, the story ends somewhat abruptly and has no strong sense of finality. Therefore, I’ll rush to get to the sequel, Tandia , to continue the exploration of Courtenay’s Africa.

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for such a stupendous piece. Re-reading this book has solidified why I consider it one of my favourites and a book I’d surely pack for an island isolation.

This book fulfils Topic # 3: Island Reading in the Equinox #3 Reading Challenge.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Suz.
1,100 reviews565 followers
May 21, 2021
Audio version with introduction by the author himself. He is such a larrikin with a happy voice. Bryce Courtenay's debut, apparently toiled over at the kitchen table with his son's girlfriend stating "This is the best book I've read, you need to publish it" or words to the effect. The rest, they say, is history.

"First with the head, then with the heart"

What an Australian classic, one that I should have read by now.

Peekay starts out as a tiny tot (I have a 6 year old son and therefore horrified) who suffers dreadful abuse at this young age at boarding school, at the hands of horrible older boys, one in particular. Emerging a wonderful, well rounded and amazing human being.

Memories of his beloved wet nurse, neurotic mother and beloved music teacher and mentor; this is an epic story centring on the discipline and craft of boxing. South Africa is a sometimes bleak and beautiful place, told from around the time of 1930-1940. Worthwhile reading. Amazing narration.

29/03/18 Addendum. I stumbled across notes taken during my audio read, so I have some more thoughts.

On Peekay losing one of his most favourite people in the world, due to a zealously religious and neurotic mother:
"The lord is a shithead and I allowed myself a good cry” “The only person I knew not to have camouflage was Nanny”

There are too many sweet and wonderful comments from Peekay, I must purchase the hard copy, it would be a valuable asset to any bookshelf.

Peekay’s grandfather, I loved reading these parts between the young and the old: "There’s a good lad.” Tap tap. Stroke ” goes Grandfather’s pipe process.

Peekay’s perception: “Very high up born again Christian” ” This was so humorous with the full on nature of Peekay’s mother, so worried about the ranking of all this stuff!

I cannot read my writing, so I hope I am doing Mr Courtenay justice here. “To emerge as myself. To regain the power of one.”
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,832 followers
January 16, 2015
Took me some time to read, but not because it wasn't good, but just because there is so much to this story. A supremely well written book! If you like historical fiction - the type focused on people living in certain historical eras, not necessarily specific historical events - you will enjoy this story. I now feel like I have a good feel for WWII era South Africa. Also, if you like interesting characters and good character development, this is a good story for you, too.
Profile Image for Deanne.
19 reviews18 followers
April 13, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Dolors.
527 reviews2,216 followers
March 19, 2013
Of all the books I read in 2009 one stands out in the horizon of my memory, a mass market paperback with 540 pages of microscopic print which I devoured in a day and a half.
The Power of one gave me the chance to meet a part of myself that I thought I had lost forever. It rekindled a long extinguished flame of hope, it awakened a lost feeling of wonder, it gave me proof that one can make a difference.

Set in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s , The Power of one is the compelling coming-of-age story of "Peekay", an innocent English boy who very early in his life realizes that there are greater things at stake than the hatred between the Dutch Afrikaners and the English. The Second World War in Europe, the growing racial tensions and the beginning of Apartheid will influence his world and challenge his spiritual strength.
Even though the odds are stacked against small Peekay from the start, he never loses faith in the goodness of people and following the advice of several improvised but memorable mentors who will change his life, he becomes an improbable icon in boxing which will make history.

Reading this book felt magical, the story was touching in so many different ways that sometimes I had to stop reading, overwhelmed by the details and the tenderness I felt for this pure little boy who made a turbulent and full of hatred world shine with his goodwill and with his mysticism.
Peekay is one of the most inspiring characters I have ever met. He has become a part of myself, he belongs to me and to all the readers who re-learnt to believe along with him.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books550 followers
August 28, 2017
I hardly know where to begin writing this review. This book had been on my to-read list for a long time. I finally decided to take the plunge and listen to the Audible version, narrated by the fantastic Humphrey Bowers (who really brought SHANTARAM to life also). And now it's over. Twenty hours spent getting to know the wonderful Peekay, and now I'm done? This is one of those books that isn't really over when you finish it. It stays with you and the characters live on inside your head.That's really the highest compliment I can pay a book.

The story is so hard to describe without making it sound simplistic. It is a coming of age story, a tale of friendship and history and love. It's the kind of book I already know I will find myself recommending to all sorts of people. I can see it appealing to young and old, men and women, which is a rare thing to come across. There is such humanity and thoughtfulness in this story, it's got humor, but a great depth, too. Since it is told by a boy, growing into young adulthood, he sees a lot of the political and social strife of the South African people though the eyes of a child, which adds such a strong emotional element to the story.

I feel a bit at a loss now, and don't quite know what to pick up next. I think it will have to be something entirely different, for it to have a chance, and for me not to compare it unfavorable to THE POWER OF ONE.

Needless to say, once I have let some time pass for this story to sink in, I will be seeking out Bryce Courtenay's many other books. I only wish I could write to him, and tell him how much I enjoyed his book, sadly he passed on two years ago. As I understand it, this story was largely autobiographical, which makes it that much more fascinating. Highly recommended!!

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,138 followers
April 29, 2017
What a nice surprise this book was for me. This coming-of-age story set in 1939 South Africa has a focus on the sport of boxing throughout, which I am generally not a fan of, but certainly loved every minute of it in this story. Peekay endures awful humiliation and abandonment at such a young age yet he struggles along through adversity and heartbreaking losses.

Numerous comments by readers mention they did not care for the ending, but I, for one, loved it!

A touching and up-lifting story I plan to read again. Absoloodle! (you'll have to read the novel to appreciate that one) Highly recommend!

Profile Image for Skip.
3,288 reviews395 followers
August 29, 2021
Normally I refrain from writing long reviews, but this wonderful book offers so much to readers, that I must indulge. It is a broad sweeping book about rural South Africa, set in the late 1930s and 1940s prior to apartheid. It imparts a real sense of this exotic country and the friction between its diverse peoples: Dutch Afrikaners, native Boers, a host of black tribes, and the English.

The protagonist Peekay is an only child, sent to boarding school at age 5 when his mother is institutionalized. He is picked on mercilessly because he is youngest and English, and misses his black nanny. His nickname is Pisskop (pisshead) as he wets his bed. Peekay's only friend is a rebellious chicken. Things take a change for the better, when he is sent by train to his grandfather's distant home. He is adopted by conductor, Hoppie Groenewald, who cares for him and teaches one of this book's life lessons: "first with the head, and then with the heart." Hoppie is an amateur boxer, and uses his prodigious skills to beat a much larger opponent at the end of the first leg of Peekay's train journey. Peekay immediately develops a deep passion for boxing and decides he wants to become the welterweight champ of the world. Arriving at his grandfather’s home, Peekay is devastated by the disappearance of his nanny and subjected to his mother's religious fervor. Once again, Peekay is rescued by a mentor, Professor Karl von Vollensteen (a/k/a Doc),whom he meets on a distant mountaintop. Doc too, adopts Peekay, and teaches him about botany, especially cacti, piano, Africa, and of course, life. As a German, Doc becomes jailed as a possible spy, but becomes a popular figure in the local prison, with inmates, guards, and the Commandant. Meanwhile, Peekay visits Doc regularly, and eventually convinces the staff to allow him to train as a boxer. The downtrodden criminal, Geel Piet, teaches Peekay how to box and they develop a symbiotic relationship, as Peekay smuggles tobacco into the prison. Peekay and the local town librarian also start a postal service for the mostly black inmates. Peekay's open-minded acceptance of others, accords him a mythical status with the African people in the prison and community, and he becomes revered as the "Tadpole Angel", creating a large following as his boxing career advances.

Eventually, Peekay earns a scholarship and it sent to an exclusive prep school, where he meets his next good friend and mentor, a wealthy Jew named Morrie. Equally brilliant, the two develop businesses together, which allow them to afford getting Peekay trained at an elite boxing school. Peekay continues his unblemished record in the ring, eventually agreeing to fight a rising black champion, who has just turned professional, even though this is not legal and theoretically, a mismatch. And yet, there is great drama as this fighter's name is familiar to Peekay, he is a descendent of a tribal chief, and the legend of the Tadpole Angel is placed at risk. Peekay is a highly popular student and athlete, joining the elite leadership of the prep school, but he continues to work for the people, opening a school to teach local blacks to read and write, drawing the ire of the local white police. Morrie is accepted to Oxford, and Peekay does not win the coveted Rhodes Scholarship that would allow them to stay together. Instead, Peekay decides to take a grueling, dangerous job in the mines to build his strength and body mass. Once again, Peekay befriends a loner, in this case a huge Russian, who barely speaks English. Peekay's productivity makes him the envy of all, but he stays too long in this job, leading to disaster. My only complaint is that despite the final physical confrontation in the mine bar, with a lifelong foe, we don't know if Peekay achieves his life-long ambition so now I need to read the 900-page sequel. Given author Courtenay's gift for storytelling, I do not expect this will be too much of a chore.
Profile Image for Anne .
443 reviews360 followers
October 11, 2020
4.5 Stars.

The Power of One is a very long but breathtaking story with characters and moments which I will never forget. It is coming of age story; a wonderful journey through the life of Peekay, a boy growing up in South Africa from 1930 to 1951. The book takes the reader through his life until the time he goes off to University. On an individual and societal level the story is marked by great struggles to overcome injustices and stiff odds. At the same time it imparts a real sense of South Africa and the friction between its diverse peoples: Dutch Afrikaners, native Boers, a host of black tribes, and the English.

This was a fabulous read offering picture perfect descriptions of people and landscapes. I felt I was there in South Africa, viewing African landscapes, from the outsides of the rural town of Barberton, to the deserts, to the beauty of the city of Johannesburg. I was completely immersed in this story from beginning to end and I fell in love with some of the characters and hated others.

Peekay is exposed to his first experiences of hatred and prejudice when his mother suffers a mental breakdown and he is sent to boarding school. He is called a rooinek (“redneck”) which refers to him being an Englishman and his classmates bully him because they blame him for everything the English have done in South Africa. His years at the boarding school are violent and traumatic.

After Peekay leaves boarding school he meets several mentors and friends who will influence his life and mold him as a person. Even on his first train ride home from boarding school he meets his first mentor, Hoppie, an amateur boxer.

Hoppie is a kind man who sees that young Peekay is alone on a train so he takes him under his wing and they have a wonderful time together. I breathed a sigh of relief (I think I had a little PTSD too) that Hoppie treated Peekay with kindness after the years of abuse he endured in boarding school, not to mention the final abusive bullying by way of a goodbye present. During this train journey Hoppie brings Peekay to a boxing match in which he competes. Hoppie beats a much larger opponent and after watching this Peekay immediately develops a deep passion for boxing and decides he wants to become the welterweight champ of the world. In this pivotal scene Hoppie explains how he beat a man much larger than himself, "first with the head, and then with the heart.” Along with this mantra is the idea of the Power of One, the power that one has inside his or herself to achieve anything. Hoppie repeats the mantra to Peekay several times before the two separate and it becomes Peekay’s mantra for the rest of the novel.

After Hoppie, Peekay meets a German music teacher, cactus collector and lover of South Africa and it’s people. Doc, is a wonderfully endearing character with whom I fell in love; my favorite friend and mentor of Peekay’s. They have many adventures together and throughout they help each other with Doc often offering Peekay priceless and unique philosophical advice on life.

There are other mentors and friends but I will not describe them all but I promise that you will want to meet them. As for boxing, I have always hated it and any form of fighting so this was not an obvious novel for me to read. But I’m so glad that I did read it because although there are boxing matches this is not a boxing story but a story about a boy growing into a man with the right moral and personal compass and the experiences he has along the way. It's a novel that has lessons about courage, responsibility, friendship and independence. As Peekay said, “I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed.”

My only complaints are that at times Peekay's accomplishments strain credulity and that it sometimes felt like it could have used some editing.

I will end with my favorite scene in the book which is a piano performance by Doc of an original piece of music which he created and performed. This piece of music includes individual songs from each African tribe in the audience but in between these songs Doc weaves together lines of music from each tribal song into a harmonious whole of it’s own. I had goosebumps listening to the description of this concert.

I listened to the audio version of this book. The narrator, Humphrey Bower, was amazing. He captures innumerable accents and voices and pronounces words native to Zulu, Africaans, German, Latin and English.

Do I recommend this book? Absodoodle, as Doc would say in his thick German accent while speaking English.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,046 reviews903 followers
September 4, 2019
3 - 3.5 stars

This novel makes an appearance in the top ten of the most loved novels in Australia, so my high expectations were justified. I feel I should have loved this, but I didn't. I should have loved it because it addresses racism, antisemitism, tribalism; it shows some disdain for religious beliefs while praising the power of knowledge and education - all these aspects, and more, should have made me go ga-ga over this novel.

The Power of One is pretty aptly named, it's also my main issue with this novel. You see, the protagonist of this novel, Peekay, whom we meet as a five-year-old and whose adventures we follow until he's eighteen, seems to possess many powers: excellent ability to learn different languages; ability to learn to play the piano; sporting abilities which turn him into a champion boxer; high IQ, which allowed him to outperform everyone at school etc. With the help of mentors he runs clandestine letter exchange services for the mostly black men in prison; at sixteen he establishes an after-hours school to teach black kids, in spite of the law which prohibited black schools in white communities.
And of course, he always wins his boxing matches, even though he was facing taller and heavier opponents. Speaking of boxing, there's sooooooo much of it. I personally find boxing reprehensible.

There isn't anything Peekay can't do. He's perfect! He's the best at everything. He sees no colour, has no prejudices, no hang-ups, he's selfless and incredibly empathetic, breaks barriers, enlightens and helps so many. He's a saint! A white knight with no armour.

Another problem, The Power of One is too long, even though it's easy to digest given it's dialogue rich and action packed. I don't know why I somehow expected it to be more literary.

Overall, I enjoyed and appreciated this novel and can definitely see why so many love it.

The lack of restraint when dishing out Peekay's virtues and because its somewhat simplistic portrayal of race and tribal relations, I'm only giving this 3 - 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,223 reviews169 followers
July 29, 2022
“… the power of one – one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination.”

The fictionalized biography of Peekay, a young man born into a profoundly racist WW II South Africa, is so compelling, so graphic, so gut-wrenching, so moving and so gripping, it is all but impossible to believe that it is Bryce Courtenay’s debut novel. Like Jeffrey Archer’s KANE AND ABEL, Herman Wouk’s THE WINDS OF WAR or Khaled Hosseini’s THE KITE RUNNER, Peekay’s personal story is credible, moving, and unfailingly interesting. At the same time, like Lawrence Hill’s THE BOOK OF NEGROES or Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY, the endemic, deeply rooted racism is stomach-churning, disturbing and shocking – whites hate blacks, Pentecostal Christians hate Jews, South Africans hate Brits, Nazis hate everyone who isn’t Nazi. 1930s and 1940s apartheid South Africa is a dangerous, violent, distressed and, frankly, very ugly country that exemplifies hatred but Peekay, despite the blockades lined up in front of him, is determined to rise above it all. With the help of black men and women, his eyes are firmly fixed on the welterweight boxing championship of the world.

And the writing was beyond brilliant. Peekay’s friend and mentor, Doc von Vollensteen, was imprisoned for the temerity of having been born German at a time when Hitler was ravaging Europe. The prison concert scene, for example, in which Doc debuted his piano composition “Concerto for the Great Southland”, sung by the black inmates in a polyglot male chorus of mixed tribal languages, was one of the most moving segments of writing that I’ve ever clapped eyes on.

THE POWER OF ONE and its sequel TANDIA comprise a rather daunting 1400 page epic but I was simply astonished at how quickly the opening novel sped by. Despite its length, I was sorry to see it end but I’m looking forward to cracking the metaphorical binding on the sequel.

Highly, highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Rob.
511 reviews107 followers
October 11, 2019
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. First published 1989.

So much has been written over the years about this book that I can’t add anything more illuminating to what has already been said. So this will just be my concise opinion.

This would have to be my third reading of The Power of One and still, although the story is well known to me, it still has the power, ignore the pun, to move me.
Every human emotion is on display here be they good or bad. This sadly is the human condition. We have within us the ability to do great good but conversely we can often use that ability to do great wrongs. If no one makes a stand nothing changes. It just takes one person with enough power and resolve to get things started.
This for me is the power behind The Power of One.

I was surprised at how emotional I became when reading the passage about Grandpa Chooks death by stoning, or how infected I became with Doc’s thirst of knowledge. Talk about being invested in the characters.

If you haven’t read this yet, do yourself a favour and do it.

A truly memorable reading 5 star experience.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book488 followers
August 28, 2020
The power of one was based on the courage to remain separate, to think through to the truth, and not to be beguiled by convention or the plausible arguments of those who expect to maintain power.

I love when I fall in love with a book that appears to be about a subject I don’t generally feel any enthusiasm for. In this case, that would be boxing. I watched a man named Kid Paret beaten senseless in a televised fight in 1962. He died a few days later. My father loved watching the fights, and we watched them frequently, but that is the only one I can remember in any detail. I remember my daddy saying “The ref needs to call this, he is killing him” and then the strange feeling that told me that was true. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I had reservations when I realized boxing was about to play a major part in this book’s plot.

Like so many books in which sports figure, this book isn’t about the sport at all. It is about the shaping of a boy. If you only view boxing as a “fight”, this book will give you some insight into why boxers are willing to take that beating or give it.

In teaching me independence of thought, they had given me the greatest gift an adult can give to a child besides love, and they had given me that also.

Peekay is an English South African, a child in the days just before World War II, and part of a country divided into the English, the Boers, and the black Africans. Peekay, because of circumstances, finds himself intimately involved with each of these groups, and with a marvelous German professor, known as Doc. And, because of this, the book becomes a story about racial injustice, overcoming adversity when the deck is stacked against you, finding your own place in the world, and having the power of one.

As Doc had pointed out, mystery, not logic, is what gives us hope and keeps us believing in a force greater than our own insignificance.

A reference that brought to mind perhaps my favorite book of all time, made me smile, when Peekay says, “Look, Doc, it’s like Merlin’s altar in the crystal cave!” I laughed and said to myself, this is really a book written for me.

There are moments of brilliance in this novel. It is a timely read, for much of it is about the bridges that can be built between races and the importance of recognizing individuals for who they are and for the wonder each of them brings to our lives.

Is this a good book? In the words of Doc, “Absoloodle!”

A huge thank you to Bob, who has once again opened a new world for me in the pages of a great book.

Profile Image for Adrienne.
516 reviews121 followers
December 2, 2019
Excellent, superb and intellectually challenging.
I was impressed in different ways.
On Peekay his character development and self knowledge. From a boarding school 5 year old : facing daily physical brutality. That brought tears to my eyes. Even the 'matron' used a cane! His childhood friendship with the 'Doc' (really a Professor of Music) being the most influential on developing his intellect while giving him the most 'parental' love. His next boarding school experience, starting a few years later, was mostly shaped by friend Hyman. A youth who also had a complex character and sharp, curious intellect. Through this time Peekay's desire to be 'the welterweight champion of the world ' gained force.
The incredible cruelty of the social and political South African attitude to people of colour was brought out so clearly by Courtenay. A system which also brought out the worse in some white people also.
I have meet people over the years who have left South Africa to come to New Zealand. They, like Peekay, were people with no racist feelings. But who found living in South Africa to be a daily frightening experience.
This book appealed to me on many levels. Mostly the power of Courtenay's writing allowed me fully enter the minds of his character. Plus feel the horror of the 1940, 1950, South Africa political and social system: which also, I believe, handicapped the 'whites' too.
Unputdownable. Courtenay is now a top favourite author for me.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,105 reviews52 followers
May 30, 2020
After two years of thinking about this novel after I wrote the review below, I have upgraded to five stars. It was that impactful for me.

The Power of One is a semi-auto biographical coming of age story set in South Africa during the 1940’s.

PK is an English boy who endures a great deal of abuse from the Boer children, some of whom are Nazi sympathizers until he is taught to box. He is an exceptional student who later befriends Doc, a German professor who is a great pianist but who is confined to the local prison for the duration of the war. The professor teaches PK many valuable life lessons including the piano but boxing and excelling at schoolwork remain his true passions.

This is a great novel for the first 2/3 of the book essentially covering the period when PK is age 5 to 12. PK is the ultimate underdog throughout the first half. He becomes a local boxing champion and always displays a great deal of humanity towards Zulus and seemingly anyone who is not part of the power structure in those awful conditions that made up Apartheid. Returning home from boarding school to live with his grandpa and mother, PK first meets and later visits Doc at the prison when he is incarcerated. PK knows three languages which is uncommon even for adults. With the help of the professor and Geel Piet, a Zulu prisoner with a huge heart, PK helps smuggle letters in and out of the local prison. Along with his boxing prowess he becomes a real hero to the prisoners. This does not escape the notice of some of the racist guards although they don’t suspect PK, one guard does suspect a clandestine activity. There are incidents that follow that are quite sad and I won’t spoil but rest assured the incidents are masterfully told.

The last 1/3 of the book covered PKs teenage years into young adulthood and for me were not as interesting. The child like innocence and wonder were gone after age twelve and the end of WWII. I think the story would have been perfect if he had ended there.

Bryce Courtenay, the author, was a truly gifted writer and there are some truly beautiful passages in this novel and many valuable life lessons.

I probably learned more about South Africa from this novel than any history book on Apartheid or the Boer War that I ever read.

“First with your head, then with your heart PK”
Profile Image for Arah-Lynda.
337 reviews525 followers
May 10, 2015

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.

Profile Image for Claudia.
36 reviews5 followers
March 3, 2008
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.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Brandice.
860 reviews
August 8, 2018
The Power of One is at its simplest, a story of self-reliance and perseverance in times of hardship and struggle. The story follows Peekay from childhood through his young adult years, including his schooling, his pursuit of boxing, and his odd collection of enemies, friends, mentors and teachers.

The book is long, and it took me quite a long time to get into the story. It was a commitment, particularly because I found the pace of the story to be slow and full of (somewhat unnecessary) detail early on, but once I did finally get into it, The Power of One was quite good.

"Ahead of me lay the dreaded Mevrou, the Judge and the jury, and the beginning of the power of one - how I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed."
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,691 reviews451 followers
May 21, 2018
"The Power of One" is the story of the childhood and adolescence of a South African boy, Peekay. Set in the 1940s, the earlier Boer War, World War II, and apartheid all effect the relationships between the characters. After English Peekay was taunted cruelly by some Afrikaner (Boer) boys at a boarding school, he made it his goal to become the welterweight champion of the world someday. His first boxing mentor, Hoppie, advised him, "First with the head and then with the heart, that's how a man stays ahead from the start."

Doc, a German music teacher and naturalist, plays a father figure and good friend to the precocious young boy. Doc teaches him about observation and logic. Doc can also see mystical or spiritual expressions in nature and music. After helping some black prisoners with Doc and his colored boxing coach, Geet Piels, Peekay becomes a symbol of hope to the black South Africans. Peekay is generous in spirit, and compassionate toward those who are mistreated by prejudiced people.

"The power of one", the spirit inside Peekay, becomes stronger during adolescence, allowing him to create his own destiny. He takes a lucrative, but dangerous job to earn money to pay for university tuition. The book comes around full circle as Peekay resolves his childhood abuse and forges ahead into the future.

I enjoyed this novel with the likable, humorous Peekay who is loved by his mentors, and who gives back to the less fortunate. The book is full of adventure, and has some exciting boxing matches (and I never watch boxing on TV). The story is a journey as we follow his transformation into being a strong, intelligent man. Some events are based on the author's life. The South African politics--with the clashes between the English, the Afrikaners, the blacks, and the coloreds (mixed race)--are always in the background, giving the reader lots of food for thought.
Profile Image for Heather W.
6 reviews1 follower
May 29, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,690 followers
January 26, 2009
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.
4 reviews2 followers
February 24, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Maria.
305 reviews13 followers
February 24, 2016
I've read this book three times and each time it's as good as the previous read, if not better. A semi-autobiographical novel, Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One is set in South Africa immediately before, during and after WWII. The novel's protagonist is Peekay - just Peekay - who is, in all respects, a remarkable young man. The story begins when Peekay is 5 years old and ends when he is 17, but the 12 years covered are formative; although we don't know what lies in store for Peekay by the end of the book, we know he will carry the experiences of his boyhood with him for the rest of his life.

Young Peekay is a white child of British heritage growing up in South Africa after the British absorbed the Boer republics into the British Empire in the early 1900s after winning the second Anglo-Boer War. The Boers, who speak Afrikaans, and the British, who speak English, spend a lot time looking down on each other, both both group look down on black South Africans, who speak many languages. Peekay learns to speak all the languages, which of course is symbolic of his uncommon ability to find a way to relate to and communicate effectively with so many other human beings throughout the book. He is treated horribly at times but somehow manages to meet some extraordinary people who help him in his endeavor to grow up. The rich character development is my favorite aspect of this novel.

This third time around I listened to the audiobook and it is a great listen. The narrator is excellent (even if his pace was a tad slow), and it was very helpful to hear all of the African and Boer names and vocabulary words pronounced properly. I recommend this book often, even to young adults since Peekay spends a good portion of the novel between the ages of 10 and 17, and even to men since there are very masculine themes, and it is universally admired. All my book clubs at the library just read it and loved it (despite being longer than a usual book club pick).
Profile Image for Prairie78.
10 reviews9 followers
June 1, 2009
God help me, I'll never finish this book. I'm drowning in uninspired writing.

Ok, I finished it. This was truly one of the most laborious reads I've had in quite a while. Suffice it to say I thought I'd never climb my way out to read another book again in my life. The writing style isn't difficult--it's not that that made it painful to get through. It's just a terribly written book with terribly boring, stock characters who go around doing terribly improbable things that evoke not one ounce of feeling from me because I'm making "blah blah blah" noises. Sweet merciful Jesus.
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book133 followers
August 29, 2022
I was immediately hooked by this story as it followed a young boy, Peekay, to boarding school where he excelled academically, but was subjected to pretty miserable treatment by his older/bigger peers. Set in South Africa during the time of WWII, it showed a nation beset by cultural divisions; white/black, English/Afrikaner, Christian/Jew, Germany/everyone else. Within this stew, Peekay tries to find safe ground, developing a tendency for human camouflage. The first part of this epic saga focuses on his efforts to understand the world around him and to survive it. Despite some pretty despicable events, there is much humor in the telling, which softened events that made me want to claw some characters from the pages.

As the story proceeds, Peekay leaves boarding school and reintegrates into his family and surrounding town. As we follow Peekay through this coming-of-age journey, we meet a number of memorable and instrumental characters; instrumental for leaving a mark on an impressionable boy, for influencing his view of the world, himself, and his choices.

As the story progressed, and became more focused on boxing, my interest did wane somewhat. But the characters, choices and outcomes kept me reading. The cultural background Peekay existed in was ever-present, and was interesting and informative and apropos of the times. Occasionally, almost too much information was given which seemed to bog things down, but also provided some vivid understanding of his surroundings and activities (mining, boxing, living within a prison setting).

I confess that as I neared the end of the story, I wondered where this was going to end...where were we headed in his journey. When the end came, I thought...."Oh, of course." And although it seemed abrupt, it left me with as much satisfaction as Peekay must have felt.

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