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It's 1946, and drought is eroding parts of Natal, a province of the Union of South Africa. Uplands near the village of Ndotsheni are still fertile, but the soil is depleted in lowlands reserved for blacks of the once powerful Zulu nation. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo is worried. With crops too sparse to feed everyone, young people have been going off to Johannesburg. Very few ever return. One of those gone is Sibeko's daughter who accompanied her white mistress, Miss Smith, to a Johannesburg suburb. Others are members of the parson's own family. Kumalo's brother John has been in Johannesburg ten years; his sister Gertrude took her baby and left to find her husband two or three years back; and his son Absalom has been gone for more than a year. Kumalo fears that strict Zulu moral traditions, based on family unity, may be breaking down completely.
One day Kumalo hears from the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a Zulu and an Anglican priest like himself. Msimangu writes that Kumalo must come to Johannesburg immediately because Gertrude is ill. Once Kumalo quits worrying about the expense, he enjoys the trip. He gawks without embarrassment at more trains, stations, people, and streets than he had ever imagined. In Johannesburg, however, his delight fades. A young black man tricks him out of some money, and then Msimangu tells him Gertrude isn't physically sick-she's a prostitute.
The next day, though, after many tears, Gertrude agrees to give up prostitution. She and her little boy move to Kumalo's rooming house until he is ready to take them back to Ndotsheni. His good spirits restored, Kumalo expects equally successful reunions with his brother and his son. It sounds easy. Absalom's best friend is John's son, Matthew, and Msimangu says that everyone knows John Kumalo. He owns a prosperous shop and gives rousing speeches on such issues as fair wages for black workers. But Stephen Kumalo is bitterly disappointed with John, who has left the Anglican Church. He lives with a woman who isn't his wife and doesn't even know where his own son is-much less Absalom. Kumalo reluctantly acknowledges that his brother will never return to Ndotsheni, but he still hopes that his own son Absalom will.
With Msimangu as his guide, Kumalo finds a factory John mentioned. But Absalom no longer works there. It also turns out that he has moved from the address a man at the factory provides, and from the next, too. Each new address is in a worse neighborhood. Kumalo tries to ignore a conclusion he is reaching, but he has seen and heard too much. The wealth of white districts and the poverty and lack of work in black ones make crime all too attractive to any idle boy-even his son. It's almost a relief when he and Msimangu (close friends by then) learn at last that Absalom is in reform school for burglary. But their relief fades. Officials have released him to marry a girl he made pregnant, and she hasn't seen him for days.
That evening, headlines further alarm Kumalo. Three young blacks have killed a prominent white man, a spokesman for social reform named Arthur Jarvis. Hundreds of boys might have killed him, but Kumalo is sick with fear that Absalom is one of the three. A thin connection feeds his fear. Arthur was the son of James Jarvis of High Place above Ndotsheni, and Kumalo remembers Arthur as a cheerful little boy who used to come into the village.
Tired and downhearted, Kumalo accepts Msimangu's invitation to a day of rest and prayer outside Johannesburg. He gains some inner peace, and glimpses the possibility of better schooling in his village-education in farming methods that might improve the land enough to keep young people home, or at least provision of kinds of knowledge that would help them adapt to city life.
Meanwhile the police, spurred on by public outrage, have worked quickly. In a few days they've arrested Absalom, Matthew, and another boy-and Absalom has confessed that he pulled the trigger. Still, Kumalo is relieved that Absalom did not fire deliberately, and that he repents and plans to tell the entire truth. When his brother John hires a lawyer to defend Matthew by denying Absalom's story, Kumalo is stunned. John has betrayed the most basic Zulu value-family loyalty.
During the trial, whites and blacks alike fill the segregated courtroom. James Jarvis, Arthur's father, doesn't notice Kumalo, but Kumalo notices him. He wonders how he will ever be able to face Jarvis. Meanwhile Jarvis has been studying his son's speeches and articles. Arthur had worked toward correcting wrongs that whites had committed against blacks, and Jarvis begins to want to carry on his son's ideas. But he wonders what, exactly, he should do.
One day court is not in session. The Jarvises visit their niece, Barbara Smith, and Kumalo decides to keep his promise to look for Sibeko's daughter. He knocks on the Smiths' door in a Johannesburg suburb, and Jarvis answers. Kumalo is shocked speechless and needs time to recover enough to conduct his errand. Jarvis gradually realizes that Kumalo is shaking with fear, and recognizes him as the parson from Ndotsheni. Genuinely concerned, he asks why Kumalo is so afraid. Kumalo finally manages to say the painful words, "It was my son that killed your son." Jarvis in turn is shocked, but he is understanding. Instead of blaming Kumalo for his son's actions, he sees him as a father like himself-a man full of grief over a son.
The trial ends in acquittal for Matthew and the other boy, but Absalom is sentenced to hang in Pretoria a few weeks later. He is allowed to marry his girlfriend, and Kumalo promises to take her home so the child can be born and raised in Ndotsheni. Kumalo attempts a reconciliation with John, but they only quarrel, and Kumalo has no further reason to stay in Johannesburg. Gertrude, meanwhile, has had second thoughts about quiet village life. Leaving her little boy in the care of Absalom's wife, she sneaks off in the night. The others travel to Ndotsheni without her. On their way, Kumalo worries. Will his people take back a parson with relatives like Gertrude and Absalom? But the villagers welcome him warmly, and Mrs. Kumalo greets Absalom's wife and Gertrude's boy as her own children.
Later in the week Kumalo goes to the tribal chief and the schoolmaster, but they don't understand his dreams for the future. Nothing changes until the day Arthur's young son, James Jarvis' grandson, rides up to Kumalo's house. When Kumalo says that he can't give the boy the cold milk he asks for, the boy comes to understand how desperately the village children need milk. Then he simply goes and has his grandfather send some. The action seems to inspire Jarvis. He provides not just milk, but also the more lasting help of a new dam and advice from an agricultural expert. Kumalo encourages the willing villagers to try the new ways, and spurs on the reluctant ones.
Jarvis and Kumalo seldom actually talk, but when they do-as they do one night on the mountain where Kumalo has gone to keep watch before and during Absalom's execution-their understanding is complete. Neither the Kumalo nor the Jarvis family can be restored, and neither can the old Zulu ways. But in Ndotsheni, at least, a white man and a black man are working together to restore the land they love.