‘First with your head and then with your heart…’
So says Hoppie Groenewald, boxing champion, to a seven-year-old boy who dreams of being the welterweight champion of the world. For the young Peekay, it’s a piece of advice he will carry with him throughout his life.
Better Reading’s Top 100 list is a bit like the tide – books come and go. But every year there’s a few titles you nearly always see on the list and one of them is The Power of One, the blockbuster novel by the late Australian/South African author Bryce Courtenay.
First published in 1989, The Power of One is set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s. A coming-of-age story of a young Anglo-African boy called Peekay, it took Australian publishing by storm, going on to sell over 8 million copies and be translated into 18 languages.
Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and emigrated to Australia in 1958. Growing up, he experienced many of the things his character Peekay did. Despite him stating that the book is a novel, not a memoir, many people see it as loosely based on Courtenay’s own life.
I’ve experienced a number of incarnations of The Power of One. I read it when it was first published, learning about apartheid and life in South Africa at that time. The book took on greater meaning many years later when my older son studied the text for school. This very South African story had become a part of the Australian curriculum. He read the book, and then as a family, with his younger brothers, we all watched the 1992 film.
I realised that night the power of this story for boys. Four boys were mesmerised by Peekay’s journey. The aspects of the story that I skimmed over were what drew them in, such as Peekay’s boxing career. They connected to the underdog. The battler. His struggles and his empowering and rather spectacular rise. In many ways, it is an Australian story, as Australians have always loved hearing tales about battlers.
At the end of chapter sixteen, Peekay himself says: ‘As is so often the case with a legend, every incident has two possible interpretations, the plausible and the one that is molded to suit the making of the myth.’
In many ways, my sons shed a new light for me on Courtenay’s story and the making of a myth. The New York Times called The Power of One ‘the ultimate international bestseller.’ In our house, The Power of One is a very well-loved book (and film).
I suspect that’s the case in many homes, as year after year it’s voted onto our Top 100.
Even now, on the 30-year anniversary of its first publication, The Power of One continues to enthral and fascinate, it’s message and potency undimmed by the passing of time.
Courtenay himself however, was never interested in longevity and once postulated that one day his writing would disappear like ‘footsteps on a beach.’
How wrong he was.
I asked Better Reading’s Cheryl Akle if she’d met him, and she mentioned she had about five or six times and that, ‘He was one of the first authors to understand the connection with the readers.’
That connection continues today.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with this book. Have you voted it onto the Top 100, and if so, why?
– Jane Tara is a blissed out bookworm, Better Reading writer, and author.