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ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Today, we're remembering the extraordinary life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. For some literary context of the South Africa that Mandela knew, we've turned to reporter and writer Kevin Roose. He recommends the novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" by the South African author Alan Paton.

KEVIN ROOSE: If you want to understand the world Nelson Mandela grew up in, there's no better book than "Cry, The Beloved Country." The novel predates Mandela's career as an activist. It was published in 1948, just months before apartheid was made law in South Africa. But it gives a haunting image of a truly divided society. The book, by white South African writer Alan Paton, begins with the story of a black priest, Stephen Kumalo, who goes to search for his lost son, Absalom.

Kumalo is a quiet, unassuming man who relies on his faith to get him through tough circumstances. And when he finds out that his son has been arrested for the murder of a white activist and is scheduled to be executed, he begins working for reconciliation and justice. It's a beautiful book - lyrical without being maudlin, lofty but unpretentious - and Paton captures perfectly the difficulty of nonviolent resistance. In one scene, Kumalo, speaking to a farmer who he fears has become too radicalized, says: I cannot stop you from thinking your thoughts. It is good that a young man has such deep thoughts, but hate no man and desire power over no man.

Paton later became an activist and even testified on Mandela's behalf at his sentencing. But that sentence - hate no man and desire power over no man - is a preview of what makes Mandela's legacy so remarkable. Throughout it all, he never lost the ability to love, even those who oppressed him.

RATH: The book is "Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton. It was recommended by novelist and reporter Kevin Roose.

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