In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message. Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters. When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.
I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa. While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book. Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for. The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.
The beginning of the book is excellent. Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. It is so powerful to see him through their eyes. To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them. It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.
It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in. He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better. Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them. His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break. For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles. He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles. It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives. Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.
Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails. The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves. For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist. While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human. She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all. It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something. The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes. One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.
Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life. Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations. It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded. I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.
The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant. It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way. I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand. It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell. That hurts the story.
Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole. Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.
3 out of 5 stars
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