Too late the Phalarope

by Alan Paton

The story takes place in Venterspan in South Africa and is told by Sophie, the aunt of Pieter van Vlaanderen who is the main character. He is a white police-lieutenant and family father and wants to help everybody, especially black people.
One day he gets to know the black girl Stephanie and he begins to like her and in the next weeks he tries to help her by finding a job for her and he gives her some money. Stephanie is about 25 years old, her parents are unknown, she has a baby and brakes often the law by brewing and selling liquor. Stephanie is quite a strange woman and this is the reason why Pieter begins to love her and sleeps with her sometimes on a vacant ground at night.
After such a night - his wife and children are on holiday - there is a note on his door. It says, "I saw you", he thinks that someone saw him sleeping with the girl and therefore he becomes very nervous and is filled with terror for some weeks. After a talk with his best friend Japie he gets to know that Japie put that note there but he had meant something else. Pieter was so happy but at the end his police captain can prove that he did a crime against the Immorality Act. So he and his family are destroyed because it is one of the most serious crimes in South Africa at that time.

The name Phalarope is the name of a bird that is very rare. Pieter and his father went to look for it. First Pieter could not see the bird when his father told him. Then when his father gave him his glasses he could see it. This experience was a the point where Pieter first realized what he was doing. The bird could be a symbol for realization of the crime he had done and of the consequences for his family and his friends.

Pieter van Vlaanderen
The main character is Pieter who is a very complex character. On the one hand he is the police-lieutenant who obeys the law and on the other hand he is the dark and silent man who likes secrets.Nearly until he was arrested he did not realize what he had done and that he will be arrested, that his life is destroyed and also the life of his family and friends. In this aspect he really seems to be naive. As a policeman and Jew he is very helpful and does not believe that someone might be completely bad and that was finally the reason why he was accused of the crime.On the one side Pieter is a Jewish person who could not cope with the system of Apartheid. He did not take it so seriously because deep inside he knew that this system is wrong, it is not a human system because it regards people as second class citizens. This is shown when Pieter tries to help the natives in any way he can. On the other side he deceives his wife with the girl Stephanie which is not a catholic behaviour at all.

Message to the reader
Alan Paton´s massage is quite simple: Everybody who believes in any religion or - at least - whose values are similar to the vaues of religious thinking knows deep inside that any system like the Apartheid system is wrong and cannot be justified. Paton has the same attitude as Pieter. Pieter who is religious did not take the danger serious because he thought that it canot be punished for something (Immorality Act) that is not illegal for  him.
His wife has not the sme opinion as Pieter. Before she knew what her husabdn did, she knew something and she said that he has a problem and that he is in a bad mood, in a black mood. She cannot understand why he helps the black because she believes in the Apartheid system, not obviously but in some way. After Pieter´s imprisonment she moved away from the town and starts a new life with the children. She says she hopes that nobody will recognize their family name.
The newspapers, that stand for the society, see in Pieter the criminal who does not regret what he did. Paton critizeses that the media does not express their opinion but the opinion they have to have in the Apartheid system. The media could help to abolish the Apartheid system but it often does the opposite: it reinforces descrimination and seperation.

My opinion
Too Late the Phalarope is a book that shows very well the situation in South Africa of blacks and whites; as it is seen by white men and therefore I have an one-sided impression. Sometimes it was difficult to read because there are many Afrikaans words which mostly are not translated.
Furthermore I think it is very interesting and gripping because there are many predictions. Besides I was shocked what measures his father took after he had been told of the crime. First he locked the front door so that nobody could go in or out, then he burnt all things that belonged or had belonged to Pieter, Pieter's wife and children had to leave the town and his sister did not marry because her name was sullied.

(c) 1995 Bettina Poledna