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Posted July 15, 2013
Some writers of historical fiction are masters of capturing a ti
Some writers of historical fiction are masters of capturing a time period, others at transporting us to a certain place. Rare are those novelists who are equally skilled at both, as Elaine Neil Orr is. A Different Sun is the story of Emma Davis Bowman, who we first meet in 1840, a child of eight thirsting for knowledge and just become painfully cognizant of the injustices in her privileged world: her parents are slave-holders in rural Georgia. She yearns to be educated beyond the social pleasantries expected of a young woman of her class; she yearns even more for direction in her life, for the earnest work of redemption through service. (The novel is inspired by the vestigial diaries kept by the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Africa, and the author's own experiences as daughter to modern day missionaries in Nigeria.)
The act of writing, and the sacredness of that art, is a theme from the beginning. Young Emma is at last given the paper, pen, and ink she has asked for. As she begins to make a journal, she looks at the words she has written and thinks, "This is mine." As a wedding gift, the handsome preacher who has won her presents her with a beautifully crafted letter box with a little drop down writing surface and secret compartment. This, and her diary within, becomes a focal point to Emma's life in Africa.
A Different Sun has three narrators, and the main body of the book covers the two years the Bowmans spend in Africa as missionaries. Emma herself tells much of the story; her husband Henry Bowman, an enigmatic, charismatic and deeply troubled former Texas Ranger, is the second narrator, and the third is an African, Jacob, who serves as assistant, guide, and friend to them both in their adopted land. Much to her credit, Orr keeps each very much a child of their own time, sex, and country. There are few things more disappointing in a work of historical fiction than to have that fictive dream shattered, when suddenly the illusion is destroyed by a character's having an all-too modern viewpoint. Orr is equally skilled depicting men as women; Henry and Jacob tell of their lives and feelings in their own way and with an admirable authenticity. She also has a light touch with description, everything economical and wonderfully fresh. Here is the newly-wed Emma, on way to taking ship to Africa, encountering a big Eastern city for the first time:
"In Boston all of the houses were tall and smashed together like books on a shelf. The horses seemed to prance higher as if they had no where to go but up."
And here is Jacob, recounting the horror of being captured and sold as a slave as a child:
"Ah. That day from boyhood. At first, he thought it might be some spirit festival he had fallen into - the way he tripped and was pulled into the air, as if a great bird had captured him. The world went upside down, all the trees coming out of the sky instead of up from the ground. His head spun and he screamed. Those ugly men shouting in rude tongues....He had fallen into a very bad world."
A Different Sun is the story of a missionary adventure, yet it wears its religion lightly. There is no smug moralizing. The three main characters are ardently, quietly Christian in their own ways, suitable to their own sensibilities. Henry Bowman turned to preaching in reparation after a wild and violent youth of soldiering and carousing. Because we now know much about the harshness imposed upon native peoples by whites trying to Christianize them, Henry's innate kindness, respect, and humaneness comes as a graceful and pleasant surprise. Intelligent and passionate Emma seeks a life of service, the spectre of her father's slave-holding always over her. And Jacob readily embraced the faith of the English who had redeemed him from his slavery and educated him.
Emma, Henry, and Jacob are exceptional personalities, fully drawn with rich interior lives we are granted access to. Each faces profound moral challenges, and are guided by their faith through the greatest temptations and trials. But even the minor characters - "Uncle" Eli, an old slave on her parent's plantation who Emma realizes has set her life's course; and in Africa, the local, often times comical, king and his harem of wives; the native healer, the powerful Iyalode, a village woman of wealth and sagacity; and the native children all leave a deep impression on the reader. As does the wild and demanding African landscape itself, by turns parched and flooding with seasonal rains.
I had wished for one thing more of this book, and that is a map of Africa as it was known in the 1860's, which I wish the publisher had included. A few physical benchmarks showing the Bowman's progress through what was then known as "the Dark Continent" would have been welcome and often referred to.
This is a story of surpassing beauty. As the book nears its conclusion, it tunes to a higher and sharper key, with language so intense that the imagery shimmers. It is a tour de force of imagination, emotion, and spiritual longing.
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