A Different Sun

I am going to read this book over again.

In the historical note in the back of the book, the author tells about her desire to write about the first Southern Baptist missionary couple to Africa after reading and getting inspiration from the wife’s diary.

“I first imagined a work of creative nonfiction in which I would seek to expand Lurana’s story, using all the historical evidence I could find, as well as my own experience. I found instead that fiction was the best medium for conveying not Lurana’s story per se but my own vision of what might have happened when a young, well-to-do woman from Georgia fell in love with a former Texas calvaryman and traveled to Yorubland. What motivated her? What did she long for? What were her limitations? How did her marriage evolve under the duress brought on by illness and profound loss?”

Elaine Orr’s attempt at answering these questions (and more), I believe, from a fictional standpoint, were quite successful!  “A Different Sun” is about a young bride, Emma, who accompanies her missionary husband to Africa.

“A Different Sun” is not only a missionary-to-Africa story, it is also a novel about marraige and survival amidst hardship. It includes themes on slavery, tolerance, and inter-cultural relationships.  It develops minor themes such as variety within cultures and learning to adapt to a foreign society’s customs, religion, superstitions and missionary zeal, and human frailty and weakness… and portrays challenges within ever-more-expanding themes such as friendship and loneliness,  temptation, illness and bearing children in a foreign land.

Elaine Neil Orr, a child herself of missionary parents and a professor of English and native born in Nigeria, writes insightfully, competently and engagingly (where DID she get her style from? hence my need to give this a second read in future), about Emma and Henry Bowman, missionaries to Africa in the 1850’s.  At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to progress with the novel but the more I read, the more I found I wanted to read.

How would Emma survive? why was Henry so darn zealous (although I believe he was sincerely so…)? who would help Emma in childbirth? could she count on their servants’ loyalty? when finding herself alone in a situation how does Emma make the choice between accepting help along with native superstition, or rejecting it and remaining faithful to her own beliefs and desire to adhere to her own culture’s knowledge and doctrinal purity?

Wisely, (just as the Southern Baptist missionary wife she is being portrayed did), Emma kept a journal of her experiences, and her writing makes the novel even more believable.

Her writing box glowed in the dispersed light; sometimes Emma could almost catch her face in the wood’s finish. She picked it up; was it lighter with the record of illness gone? You are stronger, she thought to herself. At her seat, she pulled out the lap desk. Good as new.

She opened the nib compartment, the writing tops bright as jewelry.  A few grains of sand were still caught in the brass hinges; she wetted her handkerchief with spit and wiped at them, inhaling the familiar smell of her best thing. Her testament, so used it fell open in places.

She pulled out Uncle Eli’s carving and polished it too. Again she felt the slight nudge of emotion – of being at home, of herself, that holiness in her body she had felt this morning. How surprising that she should feel so content in this native compund! However briefly, she must make some record.

Our first morning in Ogbomoso, she wrote. Mild and clear. We came forward in faith.

A morning dove lit on the piazza.

Already I find God’s gifts.”

It was the combination of Orr’s writing plus the emotional impact of the novel and the desire to find out for myself what would happen to Emma, that kept me reading.

I have to admit, it took me a loooong time to like Henry. (In fact, *just being honest here*, *neither* of the main two characters in this novel, Henry OR Emma, appealed very much to me at first!  I liked Jacob much more…and finding out what would happen to him kept me going.)

The sections written from Henry’s perspective helped me realize that for his time period, the way he thought and consequently behaved, was probably much more accepted according to the standards/beliefs of that day. It is evident that his struggles stemmed partly from the inner conflict between providing for his family and pressing on with his desire to settle Africa and make converts.

It is also clear that the lack of communication at times between Emma and Henry was probably due to their newlywed status and being thrown into a strange culture before having time to adjust to one another and married life. Older couples who have successful marriages learn to adapt to one another, to wait for the proper time or opening because communication works better when “the time is right”.  Judging those times comes with maturity and experience.  It takes Emma especially, time to discover how to do this.

Henry has his own lessons to learn, some of them being that a woman finding herself in a tough situation is going to do the best that she can, without feeling that his masculinity or authority was being threatened.

As the novel continues we are impressed with the love of Africa and its people that grows on Emma, but the reader also can’t help but wonder, “why does Henry seem to treat his African native servant, Jacob, with more respect than his own wife?”  “what is this pull that Uncle Eli seems to have on Emma’s childhood memories, and the corresponding link with her life in Africa?”

“My own parents were missionaries. I knew how large and complex our lives were. But in this young woman’s diary I found sentences so compressed, they seemed nearly to explode.”

Elaine Orr’s writing is lovely and you will not regret reading this novel, although you may find it frustrating at times to be able to read it in sympathy with the characters’ foibles and decisions.

By the end of the book, I liked Henry and Emma a lot better. They had grown and learned from their experiences. Rather than be defeated by the challenges they faced, they learn to adjust and take stock of where they are and where they want to be. Henry learns to be more patient. Emma learns humility and about hypocrisy.

“I’ve come to know something,” she said.

“Yes?” he said.

“I’ve come to know that I am less advanced in charity than I had thought.”

“Wife, you are too hard on yourself,” he said, running his fingers through his hair, feeling peculiar in regard to her confession. “Think of all you have borne.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I had thought I followed God, that I loved Africa. Yet I am surprised when Africans are more rewarded than we are. Even our own people. I find it hard when they prove better than I am, when they have their own happiness. I have a long way to go, don’t you think, to share the heart of Christ.”


About Theresa

I live in an old farmhouse in upstate New York (no, *not* the big city!) in the country with my family, two dogs, two calves, and two horses. I love to cross stitch, quilt, read, and look at needlework blogs :) and I love coffee *and* tea!
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