The Price family, in 1959, journeys to the Belgian Congo from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia, as Christian missionaries. The Reverend Nathan Price and his family, loosely affiliated with Southern Baptist sponsors, arrive at the village of Kilanga with no understanding of what they will face. They know nothing of their living conditions or the types of challenges they will encounter as Nathan preaches his spiritual message.
Orleanna, Nathan’s wife, and their daughters Rachel (fifteen years old), Leah and Adah (twelve-year-old twins), and Ruth May (six years old), tend to their authoritarian father, who sees himself as the guide, guardian, and absolute ruler of his family of females. Their sole duty is to make Nathan’s life in Kilanga tolerable by creating his meals and keeping his home. He liberally hands down advice and often-cruel, even sadistic, punishment, forcing the girls to, among other things, copy long passages of Scripture to make amends for their sins or hitting them or their mother when they displease him. He is a figure to be feared, and his only connection to his family is relaying the condemnations of an angry God for giving in to human weakness.
Each daughter has her own perspective on Africa, Nathan, and the family’s mission. Rachel, longing only for a sweet-sixteen party, abhors the heat and dirt of the Congo, not to mention its distance from the United States. She has nowhere to go, no friends, and no interest in what is around her except as it furthers her desire to feel pretty or act more grown up. Leah, thoughtful and longing for righteousness, tries hard to win Nathan’s approval and blessing. Imperfect Adah, suffering from hemiplegia (paralysis of half the body), carries on a consistent internal monologue but restricts her speech to palindromes; she also limps when she walks. Ruth May takes in the world around her with characteristically childlike attention to details, including facts about her family and the games and language of the village children. She inadvertently reveals her father’s character by remarking on his nastiness and dislikes.
Orleanna complies with Nathan’s demands as well as she can in a kitchen where her Betty Crocker cake mixes only serve to highlight the distance she and her family are from the United States or any other modern world. She tries to learn something about the local ways of managing food from Mama Bekwa Tataba, the family’s housekeeper. Each day Orleanna faces the taxing work of building fires, hauling water, preparing as-fresh-as-possible food, and presenting a decent meal at noon. The laundry and other housekeeping chores, even with Tataba’s help, prove daunting, and Orleanna begins to lose her stamina along with her faith in the rightness of her and Nathan’s calling.
Nathan disdains help of any kind,...
(The entire section is 1156 words.)