I have read Bryce Courtenay books for a large part of my life. He was a master story teller. Although many of his books had parts that were too raw for me to deal with (I skipped over these bits), he wrote in such a way that he enveloped his readers and pulled at their emotions.
Bryce Courtenay was born illegitimately in a poor village in South Africa. His father was married with a large family that he still lived with. His mother was a dressmaker who has also had a daughter to this man. Bryce was named after his mother’s father who loved books and growing roses. His mother struggled to make ends meet in the Depression years as a dressmaker and suffered many nervous breakdowns. Bryce was placed in an orphanage/reform school. He was the only child there with an English name and because of this was beat up every day by some of his fellow students. However, he thought on his feet and told them that if they left him alone, he would tell them a story. He only shared a part of the story and the boys would come back each day to hear more. It saved him from many beatings. At the age of 7 he wrote his first story about the man in the moon.
One day, Bryce picked up an axe to chop wood. He split his thumb. As a consequence, he was caned for touching the axe, his thumb was wrapped in a dish towel and he was told to walk the seven miles to the doctor. He collapsed from loss of blood underneath a tree. The doctor found him, fixed him up and told him that he would call the orphanage to come to get him. Bryce laughed because he knew they wouldn’t come to get him. He hid under the doctor’s house and when he woke the next morning found a packing crate filled with books. The books were written in English. Since English speaking was banned in his part of the country, he knew he had found a treasure trove. The only thing he ever stole in his life was a beautiful leather bound book with gold filigree that he found in that case. He tucked it under his shirt and returned to the orphanage. One day he shared this book with a temporary teacher at the orphanage. She taught him to read using the book. By the age of 12 he had memorised every word contained within it. When the teacher left the school, she continued to write to Bryce and encouraged him to sit an exam for a scholarship to an exclusive school in Johannesburg. He sat and passed the exam and won the scholarship.
Leaving the orphanage he journeyed back to his family and they scraped enough money to make him a uniform and purchase a pair of shoes. Since the school was filled with children from rich backgrounds, Bryce invented a story about his his parents having died in a mysterious accident. During school holidays when children returned to their families, Bryce would sleep on park benches and find work around the town doing odd jobs. He was befriended by the alcoholic, homeless men who also slept at the park and they looked out for him. The money he earned was used to buy school uniforms and books.
After befriending one of his school friend’s limousine drivers, Bryce was encouraged to teach black South Africans to read. His classes became so popular that his friends began helping him. One day they were raided by the police and he was threatened by the police that if he stayed at school it would be under house arrest for ‘communist’ activities. At the age of 17, he fled South Africa and began working in the mines of Rhodesia. Due to his age, he was given the job of laying the explosives. Out of the group that did this with him, he was the only one who finished this job alive or not maimed.
At the age of 20 he had saved enough money working the mines to go to England to further his education and study journalism. He was never happy in England. Meeting a young Australian woman, he travelled with her back to Sydney and fell in love with the country. He became an Australian citizen in 1959. Over the years, Bryce worked in advertising. He married the young woman he followed to Sydney and they had three boys. At the age of 50 he had an epiphany and realised he had put his dream of being a novelist aside for far too long. At the age of 55 his first manuscript (The Power of One) was accepted for publication. In 1991, Bryce’s youngest son contracted HIV through a blood transfusion (he had hemophilia) and lost his life to this disease. Bryce became an advocate for those suffering HIV/Aids. Over the next 23 years, Bryce wrote 21 books. Many of them have gone on to be made into movies. All of his books became best sellers. In November 2012, Bryce died at home with his second wife, young son and pets surrounding him. He was 79 years of age.
This man never lost sight of hope in this world. He overcame odds that would lay many of us low. He is an inspiration to us all. And as he said, never lose sight of things and listen to ourselves. It is better to be wrong than to not have tried at all. 🙂