Too Late the Phalarope
is the second novel from Alan Paton, published in 1953. Like Paton’s first novel, the acclaimed Cry, the Beloved Country
, it is set in Paton’s native South Africa. Too Late the Phalarope
depicts an Afrikaner’s struggle between his position as a police officer and his private conviction that South Africa’s apartheid laws are immoral. The phalarope of the title is a shorebird found in Africa and other countries. Paton was an outspoken anti-apartheid activist whose body of work speaks out strongly against South Africa’s unjust and discriminatory laws that separated the races.
The novel is narrated by protagonist Pieter van Vlaanderen’s aunt, Sophie. She begins by saying, “Perhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth.” Sophie goes on to describe Pieter’s childhood; she lived with her nephew and has known him all his life. She describes the boy’s strained relationship with his father. Like his father, Pieter is strong, but he has also inherited his mother’s gentle nature: he is not rigid or harsh.
As an adult, Pieter becomes a soldier, earning honors in the war. After the war is over, he joins the police as second-in-command thanks to his military reputation. Another officer, Sergeant Steyn, grows resentful of Pieter. He has been a police officer for many years and has considerable experience, but Pieter outranks him.
Pieter often plays rugby with other townsfolk. One evening, he catches a teammate making romantic overtures to a young black woman. But this flirtation is illegal: the Immorality Act of 1927 forbids relationships between black people and white people. Pieter could arrest the man, but he does not, instead giving him a verbal warning.
Later, Pieter visits his friend Matthew “Kappie” Kaplan’s store and the two discuss their shared interest in stamp collecting. He is surprised when his father, Jakob, drops in, and Pieter becomes uncomfortable: his father has always disapproved of his hobby because it is not manly enough. Pieter’s mood takes a sharp turn for the worse, and he leaves. The incident sends him into a depression.
Pieter observes a murder case. The accused, a man named Smith, slept with a black maid despite the Immorality Act, and the maid became pregnant. Fearful of the punishment for breaking the law, he murdered the maid and decapitated her in hopes that her body would not be identified. His crime is found out, and Smith is sentenced to death.
Later, Pieter is sent on the trail of a criminal named Stephanie, a young black woman supporting an illegitimate child. She makes and sells illegal alcohol to support herself, a practice for which she is frequently caught and sentenced to short stints in jail. When Pieter comes face to face with her, he finds himself attracted to her, even though he is married and knows the law against a relationship with a black woman. He calls his feelings for her “the mad sickness,” and tries to ignore them. He takes Stephanie to court to face charges. The judge warns her that she may lose custody of her child if she continues breaking the law. Her previous sentences never stopped her from offending again, but the idea of losing her child gets through to her.
Jakob has a birthday party, and Pieter gives him a book called The Birds of South Africa
as a gift. This is a surprise because Jakob is not a reader; the only book he has ever been seen reading is a copy of the Bible, but Jakob is pleased for once with the gift.
Pieter’s wife, Nella, takes their children to visit her parents for an extended period of time. Their marriage has become strained, and the two are secretly glad to spend time apart. Stephanie arrives at Pieter’s house to tell him she has found legal work and will not break the law selling bootleg alcohol again. Pieter’s aunt Sophie notices a “look” the two exchange and senses trouble.
Worried about his growing, forbidden attraction to Stephanie, Pieter tries to confide in Kappie, but cannot bring himself to speak about it. Kappie sees Peter is bothered by something but doesn’t pry.
A few days after that, Pieter spends time with his cousin Anna, talking and drinking brandy. Emboldened by the liquor, which he doesn’t usually drink, he deliberately seeks out Stephanie. He finds her, and they sleep together in spite of the law. When he goes back home, however, he is alarmed by a note on his door that reads, “I saw you.” Pieter immediately becomes paranoid, imagining that everyone he knows has somehow discovered his secret, until he runs into Kappie, who says that he left the note because he saw Pieter drinking with Anna.
For a while, things look up for Pieter. Sergeant Steyn goes on vacation to the seashore with his family, where his daughter collects seashells. Nella returns, and the two of them enjoy a passionate reunion. Later, however, they revert to their old habits and their marital tension returns. A frustrated and depressed Pieter goes back to Stephanie and the two have sex a second time. After this encounter, Pieter feels guilty and conflicted over his role in upholding the law while privately breaking it. He is ashamed.
The whole van Vlaaderen family goes on a picnic, which Sophie says is the last time the family was together and happy. Jakob and Pieter go on a walk, looking for birds using the book Pieter gave his father. This is one of the few joyful moments Pieter has with his father. They spot several notable birds, including the rare phalarope.
At work, Pieter discovers that Stephanie has lost her job and is in danger of losing her child. She finds him in the street and begs for his help. She needs money for a lawyer. Pieter agrees to help her, but only in secret. When they meet next, they sleep together again, even though Pieter had promised himself he wouldn’t.
The morning after, the police captain calls Pieter into his office to tell him that he is accused of breaking the Immorality Act. Pieter denies it, but the captain begins to show him the evidence against him. Finally, he reveals a small seashell that Stephanie had placed in Pieter’s pocket: it was the seashell Steyn’s daughter collected, and it is revealed that Steyn gave the shell to Stephanie to incriminate Pieter. The fact that Stephanie correctly stated that a seashell was in Pieter’s pocket and was able to describe it accurately is proof of Pieter’s guilt.
Jakob is furious and disgusted. He crosses Pieter’s name out of the family Bible, disowning his son and stating that anyone who maintains contact with Pieter will no longer be welcome in his home. Sophie chooses to see Pieter, even though this will bar her from her own brother’s house. Pieter loses his job and is abandoned by everyone except Kappie, Sophie, and the captain, who reveals that he is the father of Stephanie’s child.
Not long after, Jakob dies. Peter is sentenced to prison for breaking the Immorality Act. Before he leaves, he gives Sophie his diary and asks her to give it to Nella. Sophie uses the diary to tell Pieter’s story.
Although Too Late the Phalarope
did not gain the popularity of its predecessor, the critical consensus is that Paton’s second novel is the better of the two. Critics have likened the novel to a Greek tragedy, with a noble hero brought down by a single tragic flaw. The novel condemns the practice of apartheid and the discriminatory laws that upheld racist practices. Nearly 30 years later, Paton wrote a third novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful
, which deals with similar anti-racist themes.