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Literature / The Power of One

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First with the head, then with the heart.
First Edition

The Power of One (1989) is a novel by Bryce Courtenay set in South Africa just before and during World War II. It follows the life of an English boy known only as Peekay after his mother suffers a nervous breakdown and he gets sent to an Afrikaner Boarding School of Horrors. After leaving the school, Peekay gets on a train for Barberton and meets Hoppie Groenwald, the train guard and a welterweight boxer. After witnessing Hoppie's match, the young boy is entranced by the sport and encouraged by Hoppie to become the welterweight champion of the world.

A film adaption was released in 1992. It scores a 2 on the Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification. It should not be confused with the second feature-length Pokémon movie, which in English bears the same title.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: The movie changes the name of Peekay's chicken from Grandpa Chook to Mother Courage.
  • The Alcoholic: In a few passages, Doc is noted to be a bit too fond of the drink for his own good. At one point, this leads to him lashing out at a couple of boorish cops (though, admittedly, they deserved it), and he's thrown in the clink as a result.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Subverted with Doc, and becomes a major plot point when he is sent to prison.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: Every significant villain is an Afrikaner, filled with violent hatred not only for the black majority but for the English as well. Notably, the white protagonist is an English South African, making him almost as much of an outcast as the blacks. There are some sympathetic Afrikaner characters here and there (Maria being probably the most prominent), but they seem to be exceptions to the rule.
  • Combat Pragmatist: When Peekay's boxing opponent drinks water, he focuses on punching him in the gut. Ouch.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Peekay would already be inherently unacceptable to Maria's father just based on his being English (the Afrikaners look down on the English almost as much as they do on people of other races), but the fact that he's an outspoken anti-Apartheid activist takes it to another level, and the fact that he influences Maria to question Apartheid is the final straw.
  • Distinguishing Mark: The Judge's crude Swastika.
  • During the War: One of the earliest events in the novel is The Judge mentioning Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland. Hoppie is later drafted to fight the Nazis.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Pisskop (Afrikaans for "Pisshead"), from which "Peekay" is derived. Also Rooinek ("Red Neck"), a disparaging term for Brits.
  • Enemy Mine: The Afrikaner boys' support for the Nazis, derived from their shared opposition to the British.
  • Friendless Background: At the start, Peekay has absolutely no friends among his peers; the only people to whom he is remotely close are his elders. As time goes on, however, he starts to befriend people in his own age group.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: As the cover might suggest, boxing is central to the novel.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: Peekay's mother is rather uninvolved with her son's rearing, even after she returns for him.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Peekay himself. He is distinguished by the traits of extreme generosity and a love for people of all races, but he rarely passes judgment on others.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Peekay is ridiculously intelligent (both naturally and from being tutored by Doc) and as such has no friends outside the boxing squad until he goes to The Prince of Wales School halfway through the book.
  • Kid Hero: Peekay, who goes from a timid and friendless child to a resourceful, confident, and stout-hearted young man.
  • Mighty Whitey: Having been raised primarily by his Zulu nurse, Peekay is sympathetic to the struggles of South Africa's indigenous peoples, but still, the fact that he tries to solve the problem by himself makes him come across as a "White Savior," which is bound to ruffle more than a few readers' feathers.
  • Mood Whiplash: The first few chapters of the book are a nightmarish Boarding School of Horrors story. After that Peekay gets on a train back to home and suddenly the mood and events of the story turn more upbeat.
  • Never My Fault: The adult Botha holds a grudge against Peekay for getting him expelled from school. Naturally the fact that the teenaged Botha strung Peekay upside down and nearly killed him with a sling had nothing to do with his expulsion.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Peekay gets a long-awaited one with Jaapie Botha at the end.
  • Parental Abandonment: Peekay's mother suffered a breakdown following his birth, so he was raised by his Zulu nurse.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Judge, who declares his support for the Nazis, and intends to follow their genocidal example against the English-descended South Africans, as well as obviously supporting suppression of black Africans under apartheid.
  • Prisoner Performance: In the film, Peekay helps organize a prison concert, in which the African prisoners defiantly Stealth Insult their ignorant white audience. The lyrics to the song they sing are provided below:
    Asambe ba ya memeza (Let's go, they're watching)
    Asambe ba ya memeza
    A re yeng! A re yeng! (Let's go! Let's go!)
    A re yang! Pula e ya na! (Let's go! It's raining)
    Hela! Pula e ya na! (Hey! It's raining!)
    A ya mema, a ya mema (They are looking around)
    A ya thithizela (They are shaking!)
    A yeza nga magwala (They are behaving like cowards!)
    A ya thathazela wema! (They are scared)
    O wenzenjani? (Oh why are you doing this?)
    Wenzenjani wema? (What are you doing?)
    O thithizela
  • The Reveal: Jaapie Botha is actually The Judge.
  • Shout-Out: In the movie Peekay's chicken Mother Courage is a reference to Mother Courage and Her Children.
  • Suicide by Pills: Doc, Peekay's teacher and best friend, decides on a whim that his time has come after everyone else in South Africa accuses him of being a German spy. He dies quietly and neatly by overdosing on pills inside the Crystal Cave of Africa, where he and Peekay used to explore.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Peekay, who starts out a meek and put-upon boy, and becomes stronger and more outspoken as the story progresses, standing up for the black South Africans, and finally getting his revenge on Jaapie Botha at the very end.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Jackhammer Smit and Jaapie Botha. The "unskilled" part is their undoing.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Hoppie's strategy to take down the heavyweight Jackhammer Smit is to effectively blind him with punches to the eye. Peekay is entranced by this sort of tactic and uses it when he takes up boxing.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Simon Fenton is credited as, "P.K. Age 12," but the scenes featuring him explicitly take place in 1945. It's not exactly the hardest math in the world to figure out that if a character is born in 1930 and is eighteen in 1948, he should be fifteen in 1945.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Power Of One


Peekay Translates

Peekay softens the Kommandant's words just a bit.

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5 (3 votes)

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