Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: A Different Sun by Elaine Orr

A Different Sun

Elaine Orr

Genre: Fiction (Historical)  
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (4/2/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours


Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. When Emma Davis reads the words of Isaiah 6:8 in her room at a Georgia women’s college, she understands her true calling: to become a missionary. It is a leap of faith that sweeps her away to Africa in an odyssey of personal discovery, tremendous hardship, and profound transformation.

For the earnest, headstrong daughter of a prosperous slave owner, living among the Yoruba people is utterly unlike Emma’s sheltered childhood—as is her new husband, Henry Bowman. Twenty years her senior, the mercurial Henry is the object of Emma’s mad first love, intensifying the sensations of all they see and share together. Each day brings new tragedy and heartbreak, and each day, Emma somehow finds the hope, passion, and strength of will to press onward. Through it all, Henry’s first gift to Emma, a simple writing box—with its red leather-bound diary and space for a few cherished keepsakes—becomes her closest confidant, Emma’s last connection to a life that seems, in this strange new world, like a passing memory.

A tale of social and spiritual awakening; a dispatch from a difficult era at home and abroad; and a meditation on faith, freedom, and desire.

My thoughts

A Different Sun is an epic, atmospheric and compelling a novel as A Passage to India mixed with something of a mid-1800’s version of Cry, The Beloved Country.  Set in the slave South, the novel follows the life of Emma Davis, a native of Georgia, but no Scarlett O’Hara.  Emma feels called to mission work and dreams of traveling to the Africa of her imagination gathered from stories of a beloved slave. 

As fate would have it she meets Henry Bowman, who like Emma is called to missionary work and is soon wedded and bound for Yorubaland (Nigeria) in West Africa.  Not surprisingly, upon arrival Emma is overwhelmed by West Africa and immediately takes to her new home.  Her husband, however, is afflicted by a variety of aliments and is restless to go in search of more challenging missionary work.  He challenges her desire to build a church and does not approve of her friendships with the locals. 

Indeed, Emma finds herself in a netherworld of her past and her present.  She has unintentionally stepped from one world where white people own black people in a rigid caste system, forbidding them to learn to read or write, depriving them of family relationships and where they are bought and sold as livestock and into another where black people are their own people, with their own culture, with its own community and social structure, they are property owners and possess a wisdom of which she had heretofore lived entirely ignorant. 

Truly, Emma faces an overwhelming realization that her life was never what she thought it to be; nothing she believed in or accepted is rooted in truth.  Truly, a precipice that few ever face in their lifetime and yet here is this young woman, virtually alone with her discovery.  Faced with her realization and as she begins to work through her conflicting emotions the reader is able to watch as Emma becomes a woman.  Her life now set against the captivating majesty of Africa Emma never falters from her dedication to work as a missionary.  Indeed, the novel very convincingly portrays the struggle and hardship of that calling. 

As a student of African History I was anxious for Orr to address how the move to West Africa had affected Emma’s ideas of slavery, it is after all an institution she grew up surrounded by and accepted without question.  When Orr does address these issues she does so in a way that I found not only original but profoundly thought provoking for the reader.   Emma comes to realize that slavery dehumanizes not only the slave, but the slave trader, and the slave owner, including herself and all her family, because it is not and can never be a benevolent institution, nor is it in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.  

A Different Sun is a masterfully written novel that manages to deal with the atrociousness that was the West African slave trade thorough the eyes of a compassionate young woman who has slowly discovered, not only the truth, but of her part in it.  In truth, Orr takes a political complex subject and makes it human and approachable and in so doing it looses its taboo.  It is through Emma’s looking back and looking into the future that Orr is able to compare and contrast the two worlds of the slave south and West Africa.  In this examination Orr so skillfully leads her reader through a discovery of life’s intimacies and losses, wonderful moments of a character’s personal insight and the appreciation of the majestic natural beauty of Africa, a land that God created.  I hope her beautiful narrative of this wonderfully diverse continent will inspire those that have the pleasure of reading her novel.

When I was reading A Different Sun I was struck by how masterfully and skillfully Orr had presented the struggles of a fictional character against a larger historical backdrop.  I have to admit I nearly fell out of my chair when I finally discovered that these characters actually existed.  Lurana Davis Bowen (Emma), was indeed the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, who married Thomas Jefferson Bowe (Henry) and travelled as missionaries West Africa in the mid nineteenth-century.  Indeed, they were the first Southern Baptist missionaries in Africa.  Orr relied heavily on Lurana’s journal for her narrative, but the novel’s wonderfully descriptive and transporting description of Africa is due to Elaine Orr’s own upbringing in Nigeria.

To Purchase A Different Sun

About the Author

Elaine Neil Orr is a trans-Atlantic writer of fiction, memoir, and poetry.  Themes of home, country, and spiritual longing run through her writing.  A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, her newest book (Berkley/Penguin, 2013), has been called by Lee Smith “as lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written.  [It] shines in the mind like a rare gem.”  Philip Deaver describes it as“[a] beautiful novel, exquisitely written, perfectly complex, true to the past, relevant today, unforgettable.”

Her memoir, Gods of Noonday (Virginia, 2003), was a Top-20 Book Sense selection and a nominee for the Old North State Award as well as a SIBA Book Award.  She is associate editor of a collection of essays on international childhoods, Writing Out of Limbo, and the author of two scholarly books.

Orr has published extensively in literary magazines including The Missouri Review, Blackbird, Shenandoah, and Image Journal.   Her short stories and short memoirs have won several Pushcart Prize nominations and competition prizes.  She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

She was born in Nigeria to medical missionary parents and spent her growing-up years in the savannahs and rain forests of that country.  Her family remained in Nigeria during its civil war.  Orr left West Africa at age sixteen and attended college in Kentucky.  She studied creative writing and literature at the University of Louisville before taking her Ph.D. in Literature and Theology at Emory University.  She is an award-winning Professor of English at North Carolina State University and serves on the faculty of the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.  She reads and lectures widely at universities and conferences from Atlanta to Austin to San Francisco to Vancouver to New York to Washington D.C., and in Nigeria.

Orr lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Anderson Orr.

Connect with Elaine Orr on Facebook or her website.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...