blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | A Different Sun, by Elaine Neal Orr
Berkeley Publishing Group, 2013
River of Dust, by Virginia Pye
Unbridled Books, 2012

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Every good writer (not to mention every good reader) knows the stranger-than-fiction truism, and when an author can work truth into her own fictional story, keeping the details of landscape, nuances of character, including their values and goals, then she can attain the best of both the real and the fictional worlds, and we all benefit from this strange and constant way of creating true lies. Both Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, the story of two young, married missionaries to China in 1910, and Elaine Neil Orr’s A Different Sun, a novel that imagines a very similar couple, two Southern Baptist missionaries to Africa in the mid-1800s, found their inspiration in the authors’ families and personal histories but neither of the writers keeps her fiction within the boundaries of the factual stories, while both yet manage to plumb the very real truths that pervade each book.

Orr’s choice of her subject comes from having been born and growing up in Nigeria as the child of American missionaries, and from an old journal and other writings by the first Southern Baptist missionaries to the same place. Pye’s grandfather was a committed Congregationalist missionary to China, and her memories of his relationship with the place and its people deeply resonate in her work as well.

The two works bear remarkable similarities in terms of the difficulties that each couple faces including culture shock, disease, derangement, loss of children. Both novels reveal common truths—not only about hardships that couples in the mission field must have faced in the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also about the characters’ understanding of what salvation truly means, and what they must learn about the worth of their own religion, culture, and privileges in relation to the values, dignity, and ways of life of the indigenous people themselves. Both couples struggle as they face situations in which they must let go of the ideals that brought them to the mission field and take up those of the “heathens” they meant to save, giving up their original idea of “salvation” for the natives, and learning to depend on the very customs and beliefs that they once meant to eradicate, in order to survive.

Given these commonalities, a reader may well ask, why read both? The answer is that each author retains, in the midst of the similarities, a very distinct and unique message, reflected in writing styles crafted to complement each separate story.

Virginia Pye opens River of Dust as her characters are recovering from hardships already experienced in the field—in the first chapter, Grace, her husband, John Wesley Watson (known as “the Reverend”), and their young son Wesley arrive at a retreat that the Reverend has prepared, as they await the arrival of their second child. Due to the physical and emotional trauma of two miscarriages that have occurred between Wesley’s birth and this pregnancy, Grace suffers from periodic psychological breaks with reality, as she struggles to remain sane in spite of the difficulties the couple has survived. In addition, a rift between the couple, the product of both the formality of their home culture and the hardships they have undergone since their marriage, adds to the difficulty of relaxation, even in this new, peaceful locale. The dialogue between husband and wife in Pye’s opening scene conveys all these concerns, along with the emotional grace and carefulness that would be attendant on a marriage in an earlier era:

When he noticed her watching him, he smoothed his brow and tried to smile, although his mouth more readily formed a mild grimace.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said. “I have brought you to the countryside so that you might let go of all concerns.”

As she continued to study him, a humming began in her head: a slight bothersome background murmur that was not altogether a noise but could grow to become one if she was not careful. It was a matter of controlling one’s worrisome sensibilities, she reminded herself. . . .

“Reverend, I know you have brought me here so that our unborn child stays with us this time. I am most grateful.”

He froze for a moment before handing her their son. He appeared ready to speak but had lost the words and now was unable to bring himself even to look at her. . . .

“It is perfectly alright,” she said more softly, for she knew that her words bruised him as if they were stones. . . . “There is nothing shameful in it,” Grace tried again. “I have heard that husbands and wives back home discuss such matters nowadays.” . . . Yet still, he did not speak.

The silence between husband and wife echoes the landscape of the novel—a dry desert, wide and difficult to cross, with a merciless lack of rain and growing famine across the countryside. Pye uses this atmosphere of barrenness and hunger to convey the hostility and hardships that her characters must struggle with in their work on the mission field, as well as the tender emotional space between the couple, an even more treacherous wasteland of cultural propriety and personal need.

In a few more pages, rude tribesmen appear in a cloud of dust and smoke, threaten the family, and drop a child’s naked skull into the front yard of the Watsons’ new retreat as they ride away with Wesley. The dropped skull becomes the first of many objects that serve as talismans to the Reverend as he searches the nearby communities for his son, and as a mystery to Grace, who must stay behind in the compound and try not to miscarry a third time. Pye’s description of the child’s skull demonstrates her talent for finding a dark beauty in the world in which the couple lives, and also illustrates how both she and Orr use foreign objects as touchstones of emotional resonance within each book.

We first see the skull through the eyes of Acho, a Chinese servant converted to Christianity:

. . . it appeared delicate and refined, like a porcelain vase, although quietly menacing, like a snake curled upon a sun-drenched rock . . . . Acho wondered if he should have simply tossed the skull into the desert grasses and not shown it to the Reverend. But with some consternation he realized that he still had enough of the old superstitions in him to believe that ignoring it could bring the Fates down upon them all.

This moment highlights the most important aspect of both Pye’s and Orr’s works—the changing roles between minister and “heathen.” In each novel, the author takes care to depict certain scenes and situations from the perspective of characters native to China and Africa, and, as the novels develop, their power to help and succor the increasingly needy missionaries creates a shift, from minister to “ministered to,” and from “heathen” to savior. Though now a Christian and touchingly loyal to the Watsons and his faith, Acho unknowingly does them a favor by not throwing out the skull, which does indeed become important to a different kind of salvation for the couple as they face their own shortcomings.

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Losing a child, surviving pregnancy, and navigating the growing distance between husband and wife create corresponding struggles for Emma and Henry Bowman in Elaine Neil Orr’s A Different Sun. This novel opens in 1840, with Emma’s childhood in the family’s town house near her father’s Georgia plantation; as she grows, she witnesses her father’s cruelty to the family slaves, and forms a close bond with several of them, including Uncle Eli, who comes from the region of Africa where she will eventually serve as a missionary with Henry.

Before she departs, Uncle Eli gives her a gift:

The item was long and thin, tapering to a point, one side straight as a ruler, the other slightly arches. The bored end was whittled into the likeness of a man’s head and on top of that, the figure of a bird. . . . 

“You remember. Now you carry that with you. It wants a place to lie.”

Emma thinks it must be a letter opener, and keeps it with a writing box that Henry has given her during their courtship, along with other precious objects, including her New Testament, a prism, and her handmade journal, which she carries with her and protects throughout her travels in Africa. “When you get there, you look for a place,” Uncle Eli instructs Emma before she and Henry leave for their new life. These words take on new meaning for Emma after years of hardship and crisis in a foreign land; and, like the child’s skull in River of Dust, the objects in the writing box, preserved and cherished throughout the novel, take on pivotal significance to the survival and growth of those who carry them. Each author takes care to make the objects important through the descriptions and events surrounding them; they haunt the reader as they resurface throughout the two narratives, waiting for the moment to put forth their dormant power.

As Emma and Henry travel further into Africa, pursuing Henry’s passion for eventually reaching the Moslems on the continent, the “letter opener,” kept within her writing box with the carved scallop on the lid, begins to serve as a guide and a help for the perils of the road. After their caravan crosses a deep river, Emma realizes that a child, entrusted to them by a family in the village they have left, is missing: “. . . she heard Jacob calling for Wole. When she heard the boy’s name called a second time, the image of the child’s thin ankles and her writing box passed through Emma’s mind . . . She only needed to see the boy and the box.” As the whole company searches for the missing child, Uncle Eli’s object appears:

“Any sign?” Henry said, dismounting. Jacob pulled Emma’s letter opener out of his pocket.

“I only found this carving, midway on the road.”

“That was in my wife’s box. Well done. The child can’t have gotten far.”

. . . Jacob turned in a circle. Surely the man was remembering how he was seized as a boy.

The fear of the company is that Wole has been taken by slavers, but he, the box and the letter opener reappear safely, to travel with the Bowmans to the end of the book.

As the Bowmans go through Emma’s first pregnancy and adjust to married life together in Africa, they find themselves dealing with losses that mirror the experience of the Watsons in River of Dust. Their first child, Sarah, dies within a few short days of her birth, and this, along with worries about money and Henry’s own illness, an “old ailment” of the spleen suffered during recurring attacks of malaria, pushes them apart as surely as the hunger and death in China do to the Watsons. Emma’s journal entries, while full of restraint, hint at unexplained dissension: “I had thought in marriage to be less alone but closeness makes distance more acute”; “feelings deeply wounded”; “Grace seldom comes when we demand it but rather appears unexpected. Will I ever learn?” These entries, modeled, Orr has said, after those in a journal kept by an early Southern Baptist missionary woman, do not tell the full story, but serve as pins on a map that Orr fills in with the painful experience of her characters as they move through their journeys.

In each book the loss of a child compels the husband to separate himself physically as well as emotionally from his wife—the Reverend in River of Dust takes the faithful Acho and forays deep into the desert communities surrounding the missionary compound, leaving Grace to the ministrations of her amah, Mai Lin, who does indeed save her from a third miscarriage and gives her herbs to help her sleep and to deal with the psychotic episodes that seem to arise not only from the loss of her child, but also from experiences prior to the opening of the book—the hunger and squalor of China, post-Boxer Rebellion.

In A Different Sun, Henry cannot settle in one place either, though he too has a wife pregnant again after the loss of their child and she is anxious about the health of the unborn baby and of her husband. Thus the authors expose another truth as the result of hardship: the need of women for the physical closeness and reassurance of their husbands during crisis, and the competing imperative that men feel to go out and conquer, to explore the unknown and master it in order to find the strength to deal with their personal losses.

Through these common hardships the roles of the indigenous people in each story grow larger and more powerful, and those of the missionaries correspondingly less. Ultimately, through learning to respect the cultures that they had set out to convert, each couple undergoes the transformation that forms the heart of each novel. In River of Dust, as Grace moves further into the experience of separation from her child and the absence of her husband, she realizes and accepts her dependency on the care of Mai Lin, her amah, for her own health and sanity. When the Reverend returns unexpectedly from one of his lengthy sojourns, covered with dust, dripping with amulets and charms given to him by the desert tribesmen, and wearing a dirty animal hide around his shoulders, Grace nonetheless longs to be close to him and enlists Mai Lin’s help:

Grace tipped her face into the oil lamp. “Do I look all right? Pleasant enough, I mean?”

Mai Lin was too good to her, Grace thought. Her old amah’s eyes did not let on about the dark shadows that Grace knew puffed under her eyes. Nor did Mai Lin mention how Grace’s light brown hair had lost its sheen, or that her neck had become as thin as a chicken’s and the corners of her mouth shot downward too much of the time. . . .

Instead she said, “Mistress most beautiful.”

And then, Grace asks for another kind of help:

“Sometimes a wife must see her husband alone.”

Mai Lin looked sternly at her mistress.

“It was not long ago that we were newlyweds,” Grace said. Then, in a smaller voice, she asked, “Perhaps you have something to help us?”

Mai Lin made a clucking sound with her tongue, but Grace felt her heart quicken as she watched her amah reach into one of the many pouches that she wore. Mai Lin brought out a handful of fine powder which she sprinkled over Grace’s bed. Then she touched her mistress’s forehead with a finger that bore the same potion and touched her large belly with the child inside too. Grace studied each of these magical gestures, and when Mai Lin was done, she reached for the old woman’s hand and kissed the bony back.

“Thank you. You are too good to me.”

Pye’s careful dialogue, though couched in the phraseology of servant to mistress, conveys Grace’s childlike faith in her amah’s rituals, and the handing over of authority to Mai Lin as the one who has knowledge and power in this difficult place. This scene and others also depict Grace’s acceptance of the transformation of the Reverend, now laden with unchristian trappings from his journeys. These amulets and bags, along with the dead child’s skull recovered by Acho, hanging from his belt and wrapped in a silk scarf emblazoned with golden dragons, also demonstrate the Reverend’s acceptance of the culture that he had hoped to change, but now depends on for information about his stolen son: “He rattled as he walked now, the several pouches and bags he had begun to acquire on his summer-long trips making him sound altogether too much like Mai Lin . . . Grace started at the sight of him bedecked in his amulets but then quickly began to pat down her flyway hair.” Pye demonstrates a wonderful familiarity with the ways of husbands and wives here, even as she uses the carefully accurate trappings of the exotic and barren setting of the novel in order to do so. In the behavior of this grieving and lost couple, even in a time and place so remote from our own, we can recognize their growing humility, as well as the need for closeness in the face of loss. As Orr does with Uncle Eli’s object in A Different Sun, Pye delivers this message by means of the foreign objects given to the missionaries in her novel, investing them with power, not only because of the beliefs of the Chinese, but also because of the belief of the missionaries as well.

Pye evidently wants us to understand that beauty and peace can sometimes reside only in a total abdication of pride, a willingness to become part of the tragedy around us. And here the two novels differ most radically: In River of Dust, Grace and the Reverend must allow the land and its ravages to have their way with them, understanding that they can do no more against it than the Chinese themselves, and sometimes, very much less. In A Different Sun, Emma and Henry use the knowledge and faith in the African culture to save themselves from hardships equally unavoidable but that ultimately give them the strength they see in those around them. In her novel, Orr depicts a lushness, a sensuality of language and imagery that reflects the fierce wildness and strength of the native culture and the African land; in River of Dust, Pye creates beauty out of barrenness and tragedy.

Thus, each with her own personal knowledge and background of the cultures and difficulties her characters face in their very different settings, Pye and Orr use these experiences and their details to create unique outcomes conveying the same message—peace and strength come through the humility of understanding of one’s own place in the world, not through the grandiose mission to save it that derives from a distorted idea of one’s own religion, culture and upbringing. The struggles of the characters and the use of cultural touchstones in A Different Sun and River of Dust form the keys to the salvation of both couples, helping them towards a new kind of humility, one that stems from the power of acceptance and helplessness.  end  

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