I think I have just listened to one of the most fun and inspirational books of all time. I’ve always been a slight fan of boxing, okay rather used to be a fan of boxing, mainly a fan of Muhammed Ali. Tyson intrigued me but later in his career he turned out to be pretty much a thug and I lost interest in the sport altogether. What does this have to do with this book? Well this is the story of PK, a young white boy growing up in South Africa, during the 30s and 40s and ends up having the goal of becoming the World Welter-weight champion.
The book is written beautifully in first person and the author even does a few tricks with the storytelling that allows the reader/listener to hear the book from PK’s point of view with the view changing as he ages. When he is young all the older characters are exagerated and larger than life and as he matures, his views of the adults becomes more introspective.
He first goes through the ridicule of being an English boy (a rooinek, Afrikaans for redneck). Only being 5 years old the book opens when he is at a boarding school. He was sent away to this school after his mother was sent to a “nervous hospital.”
PK gets his name from this boarding school, in that he is called by the other children and staff, pisskop (Afrikaans for “piss head”) because he wets the bed. The opening of the book finds PK being tortured in the school’s showers for wetting his bed, by the Judge, an older kid and bully, and the jury, the Judge’s followers. That christmas PK goes home to his nanny a tribeswoman who was first his wet nurse then his nanny. She calls in the tribal chief (a witchdoctor) to cure him of his night water. The chief cures him and in turn gives PK a chicken as a pet and calls him Grandpa Chook. PK trains the chicken and the chicken becomes inseparable from PK. When he goes back to school, the chicken earns his keep by eating cockroaches in the school’s kitchen.
The Judge begins this new term showing off his home made tattoo of a swastika. The Judge as well as the school support Adolph Hitler in this world war. PK is the only rooinek and becomes the subject of all their torment. The Judge makes PK march, hold up an iron bar for hours on end and various other tortures as a prisoner of war. PK eases this by lowering his “camouflage” and telling the Judge he can help him pass his classes. PK being smarter than most of the other boys does the Judge’s homework and gets less torture. But when the term ends and the Judge passes, PK gets the worst torture ever. In one of the saddest scenes of the book PK gets the worst humiliation and loses Grandpa Chook.
At the end of the year, traumatized from his experiences, PK is informed that he will not be returning to the farm, rather, he will be going to the East Transvaal town of Barberton, where his grandfather lives after the outbreak of Newcastle disease on his previous home.
On the train to Barberton, PK befriends Hoppie Groenewald, a guard. Groenewald shares his love of boxing with PK. After seeing him win a boxing match, PK is mesmerised with the sport and vows to become the welterweight champion of the world. However, the next day Hoppie departs to fight in a war, and Hoppie’s friend Hetty dies on the train PK is travelling on. “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 PK, it is a piece of advice he will carry with him throughout his life.
When PK arrives in Barberton, he realizes both his academic and physical potential. He excels in his grades and fights the children of the school. He trains with the local Prison Boxing team and proves his ability and becomes a frequent winner, never losing a match. PK encounters numerous friends in Barberton, including a professor of music, Prof. Karl von Vollesteen who is placed in prison as a prisoner of war (being German in an anti-nazi town), and a black prisoner, Geel Piet, who coaches him in boxing. They form alliances, and each believe that all humans have equal rights. Along with the librarian, Mrs. Boxall, they establish the ‘Sandwich Fund’, which helps to supply the families of people in the Barberton prison.
Over the course of his childhood and young adulthood, PK builds confidence in his boxing. He also learns that racism is the primary force of evil and builds compassion and empathy for the mistreated blacks of apartheid South Africa. PK meets Geel Piet while spending time with Doc in prison, who teaches PK several new boxing techniques, furthering his talent. The black prisoners believe PK is a chief, the “Onoshobishobi Ingelosi” or “Tadpole Angel.” One night PK discovers Geel Piet has been murdered in the boxing gym by the warder and soon that warder dies of a disease the resembles the injuries inflicted upon Geel Piet.
Book Two of the novel describes PK’s experiences at the Prince of Wales school. He quickly partners up with the son of a Jewish multimillionaire, Morrie Levy. PK and Morrie take the school by storm – PK’s boxing talent reforms the pathetic Prince of Wales boxing team, and Morrie becomes PK’s manager. Soon the two boys have a lucrative gambling business set up, as well as all kinds of other “scams” which bring in enough money for PK to begin boxing lessons with South Africa’s top coach, Solly Goldman. PK becomes a stranger to failure, excelling at boxing, rugby, and academics. PK’s victory over a distinguished black boxer, who happens to be the son of his Nanny, this furthers the belief that he is the “Tadpole Angel.” However, he must face Doc’s death towards the end of his school career as well as the disappointment of not winning a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford University.
Book Three traces PK’s life in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) where he takes on a dangerous job as a “grizzly man” in the mines in order to build up his body for his boxing, and to earn enough money to pay his way through three years at Oxford. He forms a close friendship with a Russian miner, named Rasputin, who eventually saves PK during a mining catastrophe, dying in the process. PK recovers but, before leaving the mines, he discovers that he has been working for his old nemesis, Jaapie Botha, previously known as “the Judge”. PK fights Jaapie and fights for justice.
This book points out the unfairness in the world from a child’s point of view developing into a voyage of hope for mankind. Share this one with your family. I would highly recommend this to anyone over the age of 10. Also, the reader, Humphry Bower does a superb job of creating the atmosphere of this book through his voice.