A novel by Alan Paton, published 1948 The American publisher Bennett Cerf remarked at an American Booksellers Association meeting that year that “since the beginning of the year, only three novels worth reading have been published … Cry, Beloved Country, The Ides of March, The Naked and the Dead.” Two film adaptations of the book were made, the first in 1951 and the second in 1995. The novel was also adapted as a musical, Lost in the Stars (1949), with a book by American author Maxwell Anderson and music written by German émigré Kurt Weill.
In the remote village of Ndotsheni, in eastern South Africa’s Natal province, Reverend Stephen Kumalo receives a letter from a fellow priest who calls him to Johannesburg. He is needed there, the letter says, to help his sister Gertrude, who, according to the letter, is ill.
Kumalo undertakes a difficult and expensive journey to the city in the hope of helping Gertrude and finding his son Absalom, who went to Johannesburg from Ndotsheni and never returned. In Johannesburg, Kumalo warmly welcomes Msimanga, the priest who sent him the letter, and provides comfortable accommodation for Mrs. Liteb, a Christian woman who believes it is her duty to help others.
Kumalo visits Gertrude, who is now a prostitute and liquor dealer, and persuades her to return to Ndotsheni with her young son. A more difficult quest follows as Kumalo and Msimangu start searching for Absalom in the tangled metropolis of Johannesburg. They visit Kumalo’s brother John, who has become a successful businessman and politician, and he directs them to the factory where his son and Absalom once worked together.
One clue leads to another, and as Kumalo travels from place to place, he begins to see the gaping racial and economic divisions that threaten to tear his country apart. Eventually, Kumalo discovers that his son has spent time in a correctional facility and that he has conceived a girl. Meanwhile, newspapers report that Arthur Jarvis, a prominent white racial justice activist, has been murdered in his home by a gang of robbers. Kumalo and Msimangu learn that the police are looking for Absalom, and Kumalo’s worst suspicions are confirmed when Absalom is arrested for murder. Absalom confesses to the crime, but states that two others, including John’s son Matthew, helped him and that he had no intention of killing Jarvis.
With the help of friends, Kumalo finds a lawyer for Absalom and tries to understand who his son has become. John, however, takes steps to protect his own son, although this schism will aggravate Absalom’s case. When Kumalo tells Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend about what happened, she is saddened by the news, but happily agrees to his proposal to marry his son and return to Ndotsheni as Kumalo’s daughter-in-law.
Meanwhile, in the hills above Ndotsheni, Arthur Jarvis’ father, James Jarvis tends to his fertile land and hopes for rain. The local police inform him of the death of his son, and he and his wife immediately leave for Johannesburg. Trying to come to terms with what happened, Jarvis reads his son’s articles and speeches about social inequality and begins to radically revise his own prejudices.
He and Kumalo first meet by chance, and after Kumalo recovers from the shock, he expresses sadness and regret over the loss of Jarvis. Both men attend Absalom’s trial, a rather simple process that ends with Absalom’s death and the acquittal of the other two defendants. Kumalo arranges for Absalom to marry the girl who is carrying his child, and they say goodbye. On the morning before leaving, Kumalo wakes up his new family to bring them back to Ndotsheni, only to discover that Gertrude has disappeared.
Kumalo is now deeply aware of how his people have lost the tribal structure that once held them together, and returns to his village, troubled by the situation. It turns out that James Jarvis had similar thoughts. Arthur Jarvis’ young son befriends Kumalo. As the boy and the old man get to know each other, James Jarvis becomes more involved in helping the struggling village. He first donates milk, then builds a dam and hires an agricultural expert to demonstrate new, less destructive farming methods.
When Jarvis’ wife dies, Kumalo and his worshipers send a wreath to show their sympathy. When the bishop is on the verge of handing over Kumalo, Jarvis sends a thank you note for a wreath and invites the parishioners to build a new church, and Kumalo is allowed to stay in his parish.
On the eve of the execution of his son, Kumalo goes to the mountains to wait alone for the appointed time. Along the way, he meets Jarvis, and the two men talk about the village, lost sons, and Jarvis’ bright young grandson, whose innocence and honesty impressed both men. When Kumalo is left alone, he mourns the death of his son and folds his hands in prayer as dawn breaks over the valley.