If you are visiting from the class project on Nadine Gordimer, you are very welcome here-feel free to leave any comments or questions you may have-Jan 13, 2011
My Son's Story (1990, 277 pages) is my first venture into the very large corpus of Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer (1923-) was born in Johannesburg South Africa in a time of institutionalized legally mandated white supremacy. Citizens were legally classified as either pure white, black or colored by the government. (Indians were also treated as a separate class of citizen.) Where one could live was determined by your race. Where you could go to school was determined by this. In most areas, only whites were allowed to use the libraries, for example. The wealth of the country was concentrated in the hands of whites. Here is a good summery of the history of racial relations in South Africa (from Wikipedia.com):
"Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times, but apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948. New legislation classified inhabitants into racial groups ("black", "white", "coloured", and "Indian"), and residential areas were segregated by means of forced removals. From 1958, Blacks were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of whites.
Apartheid sparked significant internal resistance and violence as well as a long trade embargo against South Africa. A series of popular uprisings and protests were met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more violent, state organizations responded with increasing repression and state-sponsored violence."
My Son's Story is set in the decade prior to the beginning of the end of apartheid (1990) as a state policy. It details in a masterful way the effects of growing up mixed in this enviornment. A very big part of the evil of the policy is the harm it does to the souls of those raised under it as Gordimer shows us brilliantly in My Son's Story.
There are five characters that matter in this novel. Sonny, a mixed race political activist and the father of late teen age Will and his slightly older daughter Baby. He is married to Aila who is a beautiful, very mature almost gently regal woman. One day Will sees his father at the movies with a white woman, a blond named Hannah who his father met through his political contacts. (Hannah is mentioned as blond over and over - maybe this is a bit heavy handed on the part of Gordimer). The son is shocked. He begins to feel hatred as well as jealousy toward his father as he too wishes to be with a blond woman rather than the sort of woman society feels he should have. The first woman for whom he has a sexual desire is a woman his father is committing adultery with. Hannah is not at all a bad person. She is very involved in the struggle for human rights in South Africa and is solicitous about Sonny's family. Sonny (Gordimer does point out for us the irony of calling a mature man in a position of leadership "Sonny" and sees the proliferation of such names as one of the insidious effects of state policies) feels deep guilt over his unfaithfulness to his wife. He wants a white woman so badly he will risk everything to be with Hannah.
My Son's Story does a wonderful job detailing the small intimacies that make up a good marriage. Sonny has a very good wife and a very good marriage. Sonny is also a deep reader of Shakespeare and Kafka. Sonny's daughter Baby is a bit rebellious but nothing real bad. I noticed as the action of the novel changed the prose style changed. In a great set piece in which Gordimer describes a riot the tone and the syntax of the prose comes to unite with the plot action to make us feel we are in the middle of the riot. Sonny does come across as a man who totally on his own has internalized much of Shakespeare. As we read his thoughts we think what he might have been. We see the many ways in which apartheid effects the characters. Baby begins to act out in a way calculated to offend those in the community who admire her mother as a beautiful and dignified person of mixed blood. Will and others in the work continually speak of tribal blacks as dangerous and undisciplined. Much of the self esteem of the son comes from looking down on blacks. Some will question the exact motives of Hannah as we are not taken very deeply into her psyche.
There is a lot in My Son's Story. There is a very knowing portrait of the growth of intimacy in a marriage. We see how the father's adultery affects his children and his wife as well as his commitment to the movement. We see the inside of courts and prisons. To me My Son's Story is a work of small gem-like observations and fine subtle nuances. I felt a powerful intelligence behind this work. I learned, among other things, how labor policy under apartheid was behind to a large extent the spread of aids in South Africa. In the three figures of Alia, Hannah and Baby we have a commentary on women in this society. At some point one must wonder if the gentle refinement of Alia is really the result of her parents raising her to be a person very unlike the stereotypical notion of a nonwhite woman. Maybe she is bound by this. There is a very subtle suggestion that Alia may have her own affair also but we are left to decide if she did or not on our own. Baby is acting out. In her late teenage years she is dancing in the streets in skin tight clothes and shorts to music very unacceptable to her parents.
There are interesting and exciting things that happen in the plot line. At times Gordimer does seem a bit heavy handed in being sure we do not miss things. She received the Nobel Prize in 1991. She is very active in human rights organizations. It should be noted that some in South Africa see her as paternalistic and condescending in her treatment of blacks both in her work and in her social activities.
I am glad I read My Son's Story. Maybe it is a bit heavy handed once or twice but it is beautifully written and a very high intellect shines through the book.
I see this as a suitable read for the Women Unbound Challenge given its treatment of the three women. We see how a marriage is ruined by the binds of race. Sonny would never have cheated on his wife with Hannah if she were not white. Baby breaks away from her father and partially asserts herself also but to explain that would be a spoiler.