The book opens at the remote village of Ndotsheni in the Natal
Province of Eastern South Africa. It is 1948.
The central character is the Reverend Stephen Kumalo who has
seen his immediate family fragment and departs to the city of Johannesburg.
Kumalo tries to adhere to the old ways, but the emerging South
Africa has brought about the destruction of the tribal communities.
Kumalo and his wife mourn the disappearance of their family to the city mainly because they receive no communication from them. When a letter arrives from Johannesburg, they are apprehensive for they suspect that it brings them bad news. The letter is from the Reverend Msimangu who runs a Mission House in Johannesburg. The letter advised Kumalo that his sister has fallen on hard times and has turned to prostitution. Kumalo resolves to journey to Johannesburg to assist his sister and also take the opportunity to discover the whereabouts of his son, Absalom and his brother John. They had both traveled to Johannesburg to search for the sister Gertrude, but both had not returned and had stopped writing.
Life in the big city is far removed from the rustic societies
Kumalo has lived in all his life, and the bustling metropolis comes as a shock to him.
He is appalled at the enforced segregation and prejudice suffered by the black people. Although he soon discovers his sister who has a son of her own, his quest to find his own son is more difficult. His sister wishes to return to the homeland and Kumalo will help her do this.
It transpires that the Police are also looking for Absalom who
has murdered a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who was a leading activist pursuing social justice for all. Absalom is found guilty of the crime and is sentenced to hang.
Kumalo’s brother, John, has materially benefited from his
transfer to the city, but he has turned his back on the Church and is corrupt.
Kumalo becomes more and more depressed and the only hope he
obtains from his time in Johannesburg is through his sister’s son, whom he hopes to raise, and his newly acquired pregnant daughter-in-law.
Arthur Jarvis’ father James decides to continue his son’s work
and right the social injustices suffered by the blacks. Coincidentally, he lives on a farm overlooking the village of Ndotsheni and he decides to help the struggling natives who live below.
He takes measures to limit the effects of famine on the valley and as the book comes to its conclusion, Kumalo has returned from the city and goes to the mountains to contemplate his son’s impending
There he meets with James Jarvis and the two converses regarding
the loss of both their sons.
We see that hope is kindled from the evil that has transpired in
the city. Jarvis sees hope in the form of his young grandson, and Kumalo obtains hope through his sister’s son.
The book ends with Kumalo weeping for his son’s death as dawn
breaks over Ndotsheni.