New York: Berkley Books (Penguin), 2013.
A Review, by Robert L. Doty
This remarkable novel by a graduate of Campbellsville College is a distillation of mission history, and antebellum social life in Georgia. It delves into questions of slavery, mental illness, Yoruba (Nigerian) culture and religion, and the maturation of the human spirit in the context of faith, tragedy, and respect for culture and civilization.
Dr. Elaine Neil Orr is a distinguished Professor of Literature at North Carolina State University. She grew up as a second daughter of missionary parents in Nigeria. The novel contains frequent echoes of her family heritage, her experience as a “white Nigerian”, of her knowledge of the Yoruba language and culture, and of her extended scholarship in the history of 19th century Baptist missions.
The narrator is third person effaced. The language style is vivid, personal, and visual, qualities already encountered in Orr’s previous memoir of life in Nigeria, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life. Character development is enriched by individual internal monologue, by letters, and by dialogue. The narrative style thus enables the author to provide the reader with insight into characters’ thoughts and actions.
A Different Sun is primarily the life of a young woman who grows up in a slave holding family in the1840s. Emma is a sensitive and creative child who is torn between her love of family, and her anguish in the treatment of slaves whom she sees as persons and not property. Emma is a spiritually conscious person who sees beyond the surface of things. Her true spiritual mentor is an elderly slave called Uncle Eli, who has personal memories from his youth in Nigeria.
Emma is tormented by the cruelty of the ordinary and arbitrary treatment of slaves, young and old, by her otherwise loving and respected father. Her empathy with her black friends haunts her with a deep sense of injustice and with a keen consciousness of embedded hypocrisy in their family’s Baptist Christianity.
Uncle Eli understands Emma’s spiritual nature, and introduces her to his own peculiar world of insights, symbols, and vision. There is a significant connection between the energetic and intelligent young girl and the wise old man. The bond between these two becomes a central theme for the whole novel as Emma grows up, marries, and sets her course on taking the Christian gospel back to the nation of Uncle Eli’s origins.
At age twenty Emma attends a revival looking for some affirmation of her sense of calling. She meets the preacher, Henry Bowman, a middle aged missionary on deputation for his African work whose secondary motive is to find a wife-helpmeet for his work and his personal medical needs once he returns to the demanding climate of West Africa. They do get connected through visits and letters. The unusual match is nurtured by Emma’s spiritual zeal, and her idealized vision of her husband. Henry had had a tragic childhood and a “wicked” youth as soldier and rake in Texas after the Mexican war. The memory of his dead mother and his sense of spiritual brokenness draw him to a repentant conversion and commitment to the Gospel ministry. All of these experiences expose fragile physical and mental health in Henry that will make for a troublesome future.
On her wedding day Emma receives three gifts, one a silver tea set, which is insignificant to her, but demonstrates her separation from the expectations of her family and her station. The other two gifts are handmade masterpieces of wood. Henry’s gift is a writing desk of mahogany he had taken great care to design and build for her. It reflects her commitment to writing, her body, and his memory of the vision of her soul. Her response is both sensual and profound. Uncle Eli gives her a hand carved letter opener which is really an effigy of him and her. Emma is overwhelmed as she realizes this is her goodbye to her old friend. But more than that, she hears the charge that she must take the gift with her to Nigeria and that “it wants a place to lie” and “you find a place.” She does not yet know how significant it is, nor does Henry. The letter opener is to be stored in the writing desk.
Emma perceives that hers will not be an “ideal marriage” even before they arrive in Africa. Henry suffers a four-day bout with his African sickness (malaria), and then repeatedly wanders restlessly about the ship, not realizing Emma’s distress at being left alone. Both factors will be magnified as they go on together.
Emma has a difficult time separating her own cultural prejudices and her ideas of morality and modesty from objective experience in her new setting. She is shocked by polygamy and the half nudity of the native women. Her sense of privacy gets in the way of her understanding the natural curiosity and humor of her Yoruba neighbors. But she shakes off these problems and demonstrates her intelligence and her real love of the people. She has already been introduced to some aspects of their world of spirits and demons through Uncle Eli’s life. Her own pregnancy endears her to them as they see her as a mother just as they are in their honor of womanhood and the mystery of life. Her competence blossoms as her husband’s control and stability wane.
Both Emma and Henry are dedicated to the word, Emma with her journal, and Henry with his serious project of producing a grammar and vocabulary of the Yoruba language for the Smithsonian. And of course both are thoroughly engrossed in The Word, the Bible.
As the couple move farther inland to Ogbomoso with a small entourage, things seem to brighten after the tragic death of the baby girl, Sarah, whose grave they must leave behind. But Henry’s mental illness becomes more alarming. Simultaneously Emma is becoming the more stable and connected one. She befriends the most influential woman in the city, the Iyalode, and proves to be a fine teacher of the children.
Emma leans more toward Jacob, their competent Yoruba friend and co-worker. She finds herself physically attracted to Jacob.
Henry grows more distant, even making plans for another move to Hausa land (Muslim territory) without her knowledge. He is asserting a personal ambition of missionary expansion, but perhaps for vanity rather than in the humility of Christian service. He shows little sympathy with Emma’s need for a solid place during her second pregnancy. In one episode he leaves her in the midst of an argument and is still gone when a mysterious firebreaks out at the compound.
Emma learns in a letter from her mother that Uncle Eli has died. The letter contains seeds from his garden. She remembers the parting charge from him that the letter opener should find its place. Later, in one of his deranged episodes, Henry thinks the letter opener has some mysterious powers as a pagan object, and tries to throw it away. But Emma demands he respect her property, and returns it to the writing box.
More and more Henry’s illness and the difficult circumstances of home and community throw her closer to Jacob as friend and protector. Both of them struggle to resist their mutual attraction. Jacob has fallen in love with Abike, the young native handmaiden of Emma’s, and hopes to find the resources to pay her family the bride price for her. Emma can no longer see Henry as anywhere near the ideal person of her early acquaintance; she needs stability and support that he cannot ensure.
Every setback in the Bowmans’ lives is seen by their neighbors as being the work of some neglected or offended spirit. Many incidents reveal a world view among the Yoruba that enables them to live both in their traditional philosophy, culture, and religion with its elaborate mechanism of protection against threatening and dark spirits on the one hand, and on the other, the Christian faith being taught by the missionaries where there is one loving God and no other, where nature is not subject to demonic manipulation. In fact, according to a well-respected Nigerian theologian, Dr. Joseph Bamadele Adeleru, (another graduate of Campbellsville) Christians in many churches in Nigeria’s Yorubaland still struggle with the temptation to protect themselves against contrary spirits by wearing protective belts under their clothes, even in church.
Emma’s number one missionary goal is the nurturing and education of Wole the young boy kinsman and ward of Jacob, who seems to be a genius and is very sympathetic to Christianity.
While Henry is still recovering from an illness Emma is constrained to negotiate with the Baale (king) to settle a thorny social issue. Her diplomacy is masterful. All goes well. The next Sunday the service in the new chapel is well attended by many friends. Emma is overwhelmed with gratitude, and discovers in herself the wholeness of her bonding with the people when she reflects that she is now dreaming in Yoruba.
In his most grave fit of madness Henry must be tied down. Emma is at her wits end. She concedes to the arrangement that the Babalawo (medicine man) may be able to help. He knows both Europe medicine and native cures. On an aborted visit to see him she notices a repeated motive-a pattern of design (four petals in a square) she remembers from two sources, Uncle Eli’s cover in his cabin, and a cornice he has carved in her father’s house and in the shawl given to her by her friend, Tela. Emma realizes that she has found Uncle Eli’s ancestral home. The narrative now turns sharply to the influence of the letter opener. The Iyalode (woman governor) is alarmed by her perception of a restless spirit haunting the compound. The Babalawo says, “Mah, something troubles this place; it is feeding your husband’s illness.”
The baby makes its way “out of house and into a house.” All the supporting women move swiftly into action. It is a girl, as the Iyalode had already declared. Her name is Madeline. The Iyalode establishes herself as the “grandmother” and christens her with a Yoruba name, Enitan “embodiment of a story.”
The resolution of the “Uncle Eli” subplot is a touch of genius that opens this fictional world to the possibly valid mystery of Yoruba insights. Emma “stepped across the threshold into the spiritual world of Africa.” She and Jacob bury the letter opener (effigy) in the garden, now planted with seeds from Uncle Eli’s own garden. The wood carving embodies the soul of the old man, and in finding its place Emma liberates her husband from the mad haunting of his mind in madness. Emma is given a spiritual lesson in humility as he forces her to see her false sense of superiority. She is duly chastened. Emma and Jacob talk through their friendship and their brush with emotional disaster.
Fleeting, but persistent images abound, such as Henry’s comfort in the company of a blind old man, and Emma’s repeated awareness of birds, especially the dove and the heron. One of the most significant image patterns in the novel is Henry’s rifle. It marks several points of transition.
The healing continues; the marriage is mended. The bonds to Ogbomoso are firm. And so after two years (in 1855) the Bowmans prepare to leave for a six month furlough and rest in Georgia. Abike and Jacob would marry, and the mission would be in good hands.
Orr weaves this story with a fierce intelligence and poetic design rarely seen in contemporary fiction.
I, too, have been caught up in the spirit of the missions to Nigeria, and in Yoruba culture. Elaine Neil Orr and her parents, missionaries in Ogbomoso, have been long-time friends. My dear friend Marilyn Mays had been a journeyman there, as had my former student Dr. Greg Mobley. Dr. Joseph Bamadele (Dele) Adeleru, retired professor at Ogmomoso, studied with me at Campbellsville. I did a two week mission to Ekiti state, Nigeria in 2010. My reading has been enriched by Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Amos Tutuola, Helen Oyeyemi, M. I. Ogumefu, and Baba Ifa Karade. One of my graduate student friends at the University of Kentucky was from Nigeria.
Robert L. Doty is Professor of English Emeritus, having come to Campbellsville in 1973, and has taught in London, England, for the Private College Consortium for International Studies. He continues to be active in the life of Campbellsville University and is a member of the Editorial Board of The Campbellsville Review.