- Holmes, Martha Stoddard
- Date of entry: May-12-2006
- Last revised: Dec-04-2006
Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price brings his wife Orleanna and his four young daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before its turbulent passage into independence as the state of Zaire. The Prices’ stay in the tiny village of Kilanga occasions escalating conflicts of cultures and values. The differences between the social, religious, and political habits of the United States and Africa are a source of both wonder and strife.
Orleanna and most of her daughters develop bonds with the people of Kilanga whose dimensions are much deeper than they first realize. At the same time, the family finds itself increasingly at odds with each other. All the women are engaged in a passage to personal identity and independence from Nathan: Orleanna, the dutiful minister’s wife; materialistic teenager Rachel; fervent, idealistic Leah, who emulates her father until it’s impossible to continue; her brilliant twin sister Adah, who walks with a limp and perceives the world in palindromes; and adventurous five-year-old Ruth May.
While all the women are changed by Africa, Nathan becomes more and more zealous in his refusal to change. The novel draws Nathan as a man whose identity has been definitively shaped by a World War II trauma that launches him on a downward psychological spiral from which there is no exit.
The novel is broken into seven books, all but the seventh bearing the titles and epigraphs from books of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha. Within the sections, the story is told as a round robin, with the Price women contributing alternating first-person narrative.
The daughters’ stories begin in 1959 in Africa and record events as they happen, gradually working their way forward to the 1990s. Their mother, in contrast, tells her story retrospectively, writing from Sanderling Island, Georgia, long after her return from Africa. Nathan is the only family member who never narrates.