As is typical of her fiction, Kingsolver is closer to her female characters than to her male ones. The most important male character, Nathan Price, remains something of a mystery, and he is almost completely unsympathetic, because we never enter his head or receive his perspective on the events of the novel. We receive a picture of him only as he is seen through the eyes of his wife and daughters, whom he abuses physically and mentally. The closest we get to understanding what drives and motivates him is through Orleanna's memory of the early years of their courtship and marriage. Though already preaching the Gospel fervently when she meets him, it is his World War II experience that lays a dark shadow on his character. Serving in the infantry in the Philippines, he is hit in the head with a shell fragment and wanders into a pig shed, where he spends the night unconscious. He later learns the rest of his company was killed while he slept in safety, and is forever ashamed of his cowardice. Nathan's refusal to leave the Congo—even after he is warned of the mounting danger to him and his family—is in part because he feels he cannot "leave the jungle twice." By staying and doing God's will despite the danger, he is showing his bravery. After the Price women leave Kilanga, we only hear secondhand reports of him, as he apparently goes mad, wanders through the jungle, and finally is burned alive after a tragic attempt to baptize children leaves several drowned in the river.
Orleanna Price introduces all but two of the novel's seven sections. As her narration is retrospective, from her home in Georgia several years later, her reflections hint at events and tragedies that only later become clear. From the beginning she seems to bear guilt about a lost or dead child: only later do we learn that this is Ruth May. She feels Ruth May's eyes watching her, her spirit "gnaw[ing] on my bones." She is overcome with guilt over what happened, and yet cannot see how she could have acted differently, because of her naivete when the ordeal began. At first the traditional preacher's wife, who supports her husband in all his endeavors and bends to his will, Orleanna gains strength and power as the novel progresses. After both Orleanna and Ruth May fall victim to malaria, she rises from her sickbed determined to take her daughters out of Africa as soon as she can find a way. She is now willing to stand up to Nathan and to speak her mind. She sees that Nathan's obsession conflicts with his ability to protect and support his family, and that she must step into this role. Her grief at Ruth May's death never diminishes, and she is never fully able to forgive herself. However, she does recognize that life brings change and that each person has a story.
Rachel, fifteen when the novel begins, is the most self-centered of the Price daughters. In many ways a typical teenager, she is more interested in boys, clothes, and her friends back home than in any cultural enlightenment that she may receive in Africa. Though she has inherited her father's attitude of cultural superiority, religion seems to play a minor role in her life. Her narrative voice is breezy, slangy, and full of malapropisms. Even in middle age, when she has become a successful businesswoman, her language is much the same. The believability of this is questionable, as one would expect through her social connections she might have gained more outward sophistication, even if, as Leah tells their mother, Rachel would win a...
(The entire section is 1422 words.)
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Eeben Axelroot is the self-serving Afrikaner bush pilot, diamond smuggler, and CIA agent who helps Rachel escape Kilanga. They later live together in a common-law marriage until Rachel leaves him for a government official.
Brother Fowles, the missionary that had lived in Kilanga before the arrival of the Prices, "entered into unconventional alliances with the local people" and was consequently removed by the Mission League.38 He does not interpret the Bible as strictly as does Nathan and so can be much more flexible as he tries to help the villagers. His sympathetic and generous response to the villagers provides a model of what real missionary work can accomplish.
Tata Kuvundu, the village's spiritual leader, fears that Nathan will interfere with tradition and thus his power among his people. He tries to remove those whom he feels threaten his power by planting mamba snakes in their beds. One snake that was left in the chicken house for Nelson kills Ruth May.
Patrice Lumumba becomes the first elected president of the Republic of the Congo. His refusal to accept American influence in his country causes his ousting during a coup. He is later beaten to death by government forces. Anatole's support of Lumumba and the principles for which he stood makes him an enemy of Mobutu's government and as a result, he is frequently jailed.
Joseph Mobutu installs himself as president of the Republic of the Congo after leading a U.S. backed coup that ousted Lumumba from power. He ruled the country as a corrupt and tyrannical dictator for thirty years, enjoying a wealthy lifestyle while his people suffered in poverty.
Mama Mwanza, one of the Prices' neighbors, had her legs burned so badly that they have become useless. She is able to move by scooting around on her hands. The Prices respect her resourcefulness, and Adah identifies with her.
Village chief Tata Ndu fears that Nathan and his teachings will usurp the chief's position among his people. Tata Ndu decides that he wants to take Rachel as one of his brides but does not pursue her when he is told that she is engaged to Axelroot.
In exchange for a place to live, twelve-year-old Nelson, a village orphan who is one of Anatole's best students, helps the Price family after Mama Tataba leaves. He teaches the girls African customs and survival skills.
Anatole is the village schoolteacher who later becomes a revolutionary. He interprets Nathan's sermons and becomes sympathetic to the Prices' difficulty in adjusting to village life. Leah falls in love with him, and the two marry and have four children.
Leah names her first child after nine-year-old Pascal who becomes her first friend in the Congo.
Adah suffers from a condition called hemiplegia, which makes the left side of her body useless. She blames her twin sister, Leah, for this infirmity, insisting that she grew weak in her mother's womb while Leah grew strong. Adah, who has decided not to speak, takes a cynical view of the world but notices everything. She claims, "When you do not speak, other people presume you to be deaf or feebleminded...
(The entire section is 1422 words.)