- A Different Sun A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr
After writing a well-received memoir, Gods of Noonday, about growing up the daughter of Baptist missionaries in Nigeria, Elaine Orr has produced a well-wrought novel about another missionary, this one a century earlier, in West Africa. A Different Sun was “inspired,” Orr writes, by the diary of Lurana Davis Bowen, who served with her husband in Africa, but the “suggestive brevity” of Davis’s writings left plenty of room for Orr’s own imaginative reconstruction. Here we find the story of Emma Davis, the daughter of a well-to-do—and sometimes harsh—Georgia planter, a young woman whose early dreams are stirred by foreign lands and the missionary impulse, who finds her opportunity to serve by marrying a born-again missionary bound for Africa.
In her Acknowledgments, Orr cites among her “muses” Charles Frazier and one could detect the influence even without the acknowledging. Orr’s prose style, particularly in the early southern sections but in parts of the African narrative as well, has many of the signs of Frazier’s Cold Mountain—occasional archaic (i.e., nineteenth-century southern) constructions and striking similes, close attention to the details of antebellum southern life, and an impressive command of dialogue unusual for a first-time novelist. But as the story continues, Orr fully assumes her own voice. She writes of the efforts of Emma and her husband Henry, once a sinner but now a man of God, to establish mission churches in Yorubaland, and of the hardships of mid-nineteenth-century mission life. Henry, twenty years older than Emma, falls ill, and Emma herself loses one child, then bears another. She has crises of faith, she comes to doubt her love for her husband, she is briefly attracted [End Page 105] to her husband’s native assistant, and at times she questions her commitment to her vocation. Yet when Henry, after his recovery (and after only two years in Africa, a time that seems much longer, so great are the trials of the couple), proposes that they return to Georgia for a six-month furlough, she can hardly bear to leave.
The story is told largely, though not entirely, from Emma’s point of view, and at the center of her narrative is an elderly slave, Uncle Eli, who had been her closest friend as she grew up on her father’s plantation. Eli—who had been born in Africa, brought to Georgia as a slave, and suffered at the hands of Emma’s father (who had once ordered that three of Eli’s toes be cut off as punishment)—has given Emma as a parting gift one of his own carvings, a figure of a man’s head and a bird, a slender staff which she uses as a letter-opener. Later, in Yoruba, after she learns in a letter that Eli has died, she discovers that such carvings are part of Yoruba culture, that the man’s head is representative of Uncle Eli himself. She also discovers that a distinctive design she has seen on a painting and other objects in Yoruba is the same pattern as that on Uncle Eli’s quilt and other objects back in Georgia. Eli, she realizes, “was Yoruba … He wasn’t just from Africa. He was from here, this very place.” Moved by her discovery, and following Yoruba ritual, she buries the carving in African soil, and with that gesture she steps “into the spiritual world of Africa.”
This is as close to an epiphany as Emma comes. She realizes, in this instance at least and in a way more intuitive than cerebral, the ties between Yoruba and her native Georgia. It seems as if Emma, a well-educated and thoughtful young woman, might have reflected somewhat more on those ties, particularly on the institution of slavery and its presence on her own Georgia plantation—and its obvious ties to Africa. Orr does, on occasion, have her protagonist feel a certain guilt over her father’s...