Author: Elaine Neil Orr
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Georgia / West Africa / Missionaries / Slavery / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (4/2/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Loved. LOVED. This will make my top 10 of 2014!
Did I finish?: I couldn't put this book down!
One-sentence summary: In the mid-1800s, a young Georgia woman marries a charismatic minister with a checkered past and strange ailments and moves to West Africa, where her faith in herself, God, and her husband are challenged.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Actually, I don't. It has elements of the novel featured, so I ought to, but something about it doesn't gel for me.
I'm reminded of...: Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, Barbara Kingsolver
First line: In gray morning light, Emma Davis stood before the old slave's garden at the back of his cabin, looking upon the precise rows of cabbage planted for fall.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow, especially if you love rich novels that wrestle with faith, loyalty, and love.
Why did I get this book?: I'm always eager for historical novels set in unusual locales.
Review: I don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric, this book had me in its thrall from the first page. This one will make my top ten of 2014, I'm sure! (Apologies for the small novel that follows!)
Set in the mid-1800s, the novel follows Emma Davis, a young woman from a Georgia slave-owning family. Thoughtful, intelligent, and yearning for connection, Emma finds herself called to mission work, drawn toward the vague idea of an Africa she imagined a beloved family slave coming from. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Texas Ranger-turned-missionary Henry Bowman, Emma believes she's found her calling, and once married, she and Henry embark for Yorubaland (Nigeria) in West Africa.
Once there, Emma finds herself overwhelmed by and taken with West Africa, but struggles some in her new marriage. Henry is afflicted with a variety of vague, unknown ailments, ranging from a sensitive spleen to hallucinations, and he hungers for more a challenging mission. Emma, however, wants to settle down and build up a church and community, and finds herself challenged by her husband and her friendships with her West African neighbors and paid servants.
While this isn't a particularly quiet novel, it isn't bombastic or filled with wild drama. The tension comes from watching Emma grow into herself and into her life, as we wait and wonder how she and those she loves will respond. It's a gorgeous coming-of-age story, a wonderfully compassionate examination of marriage, and a captivating historical that illuminates and enlightens.
Despite the focus on missionaries, this isn't a religious or inspirational novel, but Orr deftly and convincingly handles the passion and pain of following a spiritual path. That articulation of the hunger for a convincing religious life/experience is one of the best things about this book. Emma's faith is rooted in a desire to spread Christianity in West Africa, to save souls (thankfully, the Bowmans aren't the hellfire-and-damnation sort), and yet, her happiness comes from far more mild experiences: teaching a child to read, keeping house well, being at harmony with her husband.
Orr acknowledges race and slavery in an emotional and disquieting manner which invited the reader to see what took Emma so long to realize: that slavery dehumanizes everyone, however beloved, and is never a benevolent institution. (There's a gutting scene where Emma draws a map of West Africa and the US in the dirt to show villagers where she came from and where they are, then she draws a line connecting Georgia to the village. A villager walks along that line, and Emma has the horrible realization she's just drawn the slave route from Africa to the US.) As with everything else in the novel, Orr handles this element gently, lightly, and while the novel is emotional and raw, it isn't devastating.
And the writing, the writing! The writing was so good it made me jealous. The narrative moved at a brisk pace, weighty with meaning but not heavy or ornate. It has literary sensibilities without feeling aloof, removed, or obfuscated. I got teary more than once while reading, caught up in the pain and beauty in Emma's life, and I often paused to linger over a turn of phrase.
Fans of Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, and Barbara Kingsolver will absolutely want this book. (I'm stunned it didn't get more press when it was released last year; it has to me the elements of that popular literary-ish fiction of Brooks and Kingsolver.) Those who enjoy historical fiction in unusually settings should absolutely add this to their TBR. An unforgettable read.
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