I was greatly saddened recently to hear of the passing of writer Bryce Courtenay. A prolific and best-selling author since the age of 55 – when he published his first book – Courtenay had grown up in South Africa and subsequently moved to Australia. His books covered both continents – the first (and my favourite) few set in Africa, then moving onto tell tales of Australia in the early days of its being a colony. Prior to being a novelist he had worked in advertising, and famously came up with the Louie the Fly jingle (a personal favourite of mine). He was also a fabulous public speaker – I had the honour of attending one of his public appearances in Wellington and he was an absolute delight.
When people ask me what my favourite book is (which hopefully they will a little more if I become a famous writer myself!), I tell them my favourite adult book is The Power of One (my favourite book of all time is My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes – but that is a WHOLE other blog entry…). Although I will freely admit that The Power of One is not the most well written or even the most entertaining book I have ever read in my life – it had a particular influence on me at the time I read it that has left a lasting impression.
I was fourteen going on fifteen when I first picked it up and read it. I still remember when I finished it for the first time. I was sitting on the chair in the corner of our family lounge and I can remember having tears in my eyes – both as a result of the book but also as I knew the book was over. I would never read it for the first time again. Luckily for me, a film adaptation was soon to be made, so I had that to obsess over. But the book was something else entirely.
So why did it have such a big impression on me? A combination of things I think. I had always loved reading, and particularly loved stories with adventure and a strong sense of place (which continues today). The Power of One had all of that. It told the story of a young English boy, nicknamed Peekay, growing up on his own in pre-apartheid South Africa. The story told of his struggle as an outsider in an Afrikaner boarding school, and his friendships with unlikely adults – a German music professor, named Doc, and an imprisoned African boxing coach named Geel Piet. Through his encounters with both, as well as his own experiences at school, he sees the injustices being perpetrated on those of different race, colour and creed in South Africa, and grows into a young man set on fighting against those injustices (‘first with the head, and then with the heart’).
As a teenage reader, there was quite a bit to relate to, and be inspired by, in this story. Most teens know the experience of being an outsider, and the struggle to fit in. Many of us are also lucky enough to have inspiring role models who teach us right from wrong, and different ways of looking at the world. I think at this stage of my life I was also asking the ‘what is the point of it all’ question – not in terms of is it worth it, but in terms of what am I meant to spend my life doing? And, thanks to The Power of One – I got an answer. I was going to move to South Africa and become a criminal lawyer defending those innocents being incorrectly prosecuted. Hmmm, I may have taken the book a little bit too literally…
Suffice to say, I didn’t move to South Africa. However, many of the choices I made from that point on were driven by a desire, learned from this book, to make a difference in some way (sounds twee I know…). At first I thought I would be a journalist and shine a light on injustices occurring around the world. Then I decided to be go into international criminal law and prosecute war criminals (having a kick ass International Criminal Law professor helped inspire that). In the end I settled for working for the Immigration Service, and then for the Refugee Status Appeals Authority – doing my bit to ensure the people who needed it could find refuge in our lovely country (and in the process learning about the Mongo in Zongo in the Congo – no joke). And Bryce Courtenay helped send me down that track, of that I am certain.
Of course, I am on an altogether different track now (corporate sell out you say? All a means to an end I say). But Mr Courtenay has still inspired this one. If I can write a book that inspires someone even 5% as much as The Power of One inspired me, I will be a very very happy person. So a big thank you to Bryce Courtenay for following his dream, and inspiring those of many many many others.