52 pages 1 hour read

Bryce Courtenay

The Power of One

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide


The Power of One (1989) is a Bildungsroman written by Australian author Bryce Courtenay, largely based on the life and experiences of the author who grew up on a small farm in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa. It was the only novel published by the author for an American market. He noted that “American publishers [. . .] are interested in books [set] in their own country first and foremost,” but his novel was successful in the United States (“Bryce Courtenay.” Australian Authors). In 1992, The Power of One was adapted into a movie. Courtenay also wrote a sequel to the novel titled Tandia, published in 1991.

The novel depicts the adventures and experience of Peekay, an English-speaking, white South African boy who grows up in the Natal Province of South Africa. The story follows Peekay’s transition from child to young adult. Along the way, Peekay meets a broad selection of characters who illustrate the diversity of the nation and challenge the racist stereotypes that allow the National Party to take control of the country and institute Apartheid as an oppressive state policy after World War II.

As Peekay grows and develops he becomes a local legend and symbol for the revival of the People, the Black South Africans consistently oppressed by different governments and regimes over the years. The novel concludes when Peekay confronts his past in a fight against the Judge, the antagonist of the novel.

This guide refers to the 2008 Ballantine edition for adults.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of child abuse as well as racist violence and language. Additionally, the source material uses South African racial slurs for Black South Africans and South Africans with British ancestry. These epithets are replicated in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.

Plot Summary

Initially raised on his Granpa’s chicken farm in the Natal Province of South Africa by his Nanny who is Zulu (a Southern African ethnic group), Peekay narrates the novel. His story begins in 1939 after his mother has a mental health crisis and he is sent to an Afrikaans (a creole language with Dutch roots mixed with other languages including those of indigenous Southern African populations such as Khoekhoe and San people) boarding school. Peekay is the youngest boarder and the only English-speaking student. On the night of his arrival he is brought before a senior whom Peekay dubs the Judge who bullies and ritualistically abuses Peekay. The Judge gives Peekay the name “Pisskop,” which translates as “piss head,” when Peekay develops a bedwetting habit in response to his early hazing and trauma.

The Judge has a swastika tattoo on his shoulder and refers to the boarders who follow him as his “stormtroopers.” He delights in frightening Peekay by telling him about Hitler’s imminent invasion into South Africa when he will march the Englishmen into the sea.

Peekay is also punished consistently by Mevrou, the Afrikaner (an ethnic group descended primarily from Dutch colonizers) headmistress of the boarding school. Mevrou is similarly disparaging and cruel to Peekay, resulting in his complete isolation while at school.

Peekay returns home after his first year of school to his Nanny. His Nanny intervenes on his behalf, calling upon the famous Black Medicine Man, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, to treat Peekay’s bedwetting. The Medicine Man hypnotizes Peekay and cures him of his bedwetting before giving him Granpa Chook, an intelligent chicken that, in his loneliness, Peekay befriends and brings to school when he returns.

Though Peekay excels at school, he hides his skills to avoid notice. Peekay observes the interactions at the school as a microcosm that provides him with the necessary skills to survive in life. Observing the Judge’s inability to pass his classes, he offers to do the Judge’s schoolwork to gain a measure of protection from the ongoing violence.

The Judge is able to graduate as a result of Peekay’s efforts but continues to hate and resent Peekay. In a final episode of abuse, the Judge binds Peekay and smears feces all over him. He then orders his “storm troopers” to shoot small stones at Peekay. Peekay uses the tricks for hypnotism that Inkosi-Inkosikazi taught him to survive the abuse without visibly reacting. Frustrated, the Judge kills Granpa Chook before unbinding Peekay and beating him into unconsciousness.

Horribly traumatized, Peekay wakes to discover that his Granpa has sold his farm and Peekay is being sent by train to the Eastern Transvaal town of Barberton. Mevrou takes him to the Jewish merchant, Harry Crown, to buy shoes. When the friendly merchant asks his name, Peekay innocently answers that he is called “Pisskop.” Shocked, the merchant instead dubs the boy PK.

On the train to Barberton, Peekay meets the railway’s welterweight boxing champion, Hoppie Groenewald. Hoppie introduces Peekay to the world of boxing and to the idea of “The Power of One,” an exercise in mental discipline to achieve success, which Peekay embraces with enthusiasm. Hoppie takes Peekay to see his fight against his much larger opponent, Jackhammer Smit. Hoppie’s victory fills Peekay with hope that boxing and The Power of One can help him avoid ever becoming a victim again. Peekay arrives in Barberton with the goal to become the welterweight champion of the world.

Upon arriving in Barberton, Peekay learns that his mother has found Jesus and sent away his Nanny for refusing to give up her superstitious beliefs. Sad and angry, Peekay runs into the hills behind his Granpa’s house where he meets an elderly German music professor who introduces himself as Doc. As an amateur botanist, Doc explains that he collects cacti and rare South African plants for his garden. He befriends Peekay and teaches him about scientific observation and logic as they wander the hills.

Doc, who never registered as an immigrant, is taken to Barberton prison. There, he is recognized by the Commandant and given special privileges for his status as a musician. Doc arranges for Peekay to continue his education and receive piano lesson through regular visits to the prison.

Peekay joins the junior boxing league sponsored by the prison and meets Geel Piet, a life-time Black prisoner who recognizes Peekay’s instinctive boxing skills. Geel Piet coaches Peekay while Doc continues to tutor Peekay and give him music lessons. Together, Geel Piet, Peekay, and Doc devise a bootleg market system to sell tobacco and pass letters to the prisoners, earning Peekay the moniker “Onoshobishobi Ingelosi” or “Tadpole Angel.” Peekay wins his first boxing match and helps Doc give a concert for the Black prisoners when he finds out that Geel Piet has been violently murdered by the warder, Borman.

World War II ends, and Doc returns home where he continues to mentor Peekay alongside Peekay’s Jewish schoolteacher, Miss Bornstein, and the local librarian, Mrs. Boxall. Through their efforts, Peekay develops skills in music, literature, chess, and science before passing his Royal College music exams and winning the Eastern Transvaal under-12 boxing title. He ultimately wins a scholarship to attend the prestigious Prince of Wales boarding school in Johannesburg.

Book 2 describes Peekay’s adventures as a student in Johannesburg. He befriends Morrie Levy, the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman. Peekay and Morrie use Peekay’s talent and skill as a boxer to revive the Prince of Wales boxing team while beginning a lucrative gambling business that provides Peekay with a steady income. Peekay uses his money and Morrie’s connections to employ South Africa’s top boxing coach, Solly Goldman, and begin boxing lessons.

Peekay continues to experience victory after victory. The death of Doc just before this leaves Peekay lost and uncertain. He is also surprised and disillusioned when he fails to win a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford University.

Determined to refocus his efforts toward becoming the welterweight champion of the world, Book 3 describes Peekay’s time in Northern Rhodesia where he goes to take a job as a “grizzly man” in the mines and build his strength for boxing. A lucrative but extremely dangerous job, Peekay excels while making friends with a Russian miner by the name of Rasputin. He never meets the driller who works above him but receives gifts from him. However, he has a vision that he and the Black miners with whom he works are killed. When this vision almost comes true, Peekay saves the miners working with him but is buried under a rock. Rasputin rescues Peekay and dies in the process. Peekay finds out that Rasputin named him as his beneficiary, and he inherits enough money to pay for Oxford.

At a local bar, Peekay sees the Judge for the first time in years and learns that the Judge was his driller. He realizes that his life has built toward fighting the Judge, and he uses his boxing skills to knock him out. He carves the initials PK and the Union Jack over the Judge’s swastika tattoo before walking away.

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