Beginning through Anatole's Visit
Orleanna describes her own life in the Congo, the struggle just to keep her husband and children alive. With Mama Tataba gone, she tells us, she found it almost impossible to keep things going. Water alone required a mile and a half hike, and then had to be boiled for twenty minutes to kill all the microbes. While the natives satisfied themselves on the tremendous tubers called "manioc," her family required a minor nutritional miracle three times a day—the sort of meal that their neighbors might indulge in once or twice a year. Even their own supplies, sent from the Mission League, were difficult to acquire, since they were flown in by Eeben Axelroot who demanded bribes for every delivery. She dreamed every night about her children's deaths.
Nathan was entirely unmoved by his wife's fears and travails. Though Orleanna quickly realized that the Congolese viewed her family as a pack of bunglers and trespassers, Nathan clung tenaciously to the illusion that he was a force of good and authority. He refused to bend his will, or adapt in any way, claiming that he was being tested by God just as Job had been tested. He even denied Chief Ndu's request to give up the idea of baptism, and alienated the chief entirely on his unwavering stance on monogamy.
After spending the first few weeks settling in, the Prices now fall into a set daily routine. Nathan wanders through the village trying to engage the men in conversation, or else makes the trip to the surrounding villages to see what religious state these places are in. Orleanna forces the girls to work at their schoolbooks most of the day, but in the afternoon they have a few hours to run free. The girls use old nature books left behind by Brother Fowles to teach themselves the native names for the flora and fauna surrounding them. Sometimes Leah and Adah go and spy on Eeben Axelroot. They learn that he has a radio.
Ruth May is the first to make real contact with the local children, organizing a large game of "Mother May I" in the Price's front yard. All the sisters join in the game, relieved to have something new to do and someone new to do it with. The village children continue to gather for the game for several afternoons, but then drift off. One boy remains, however, and this eight year old child, Pascal becomes Leah's friend.
Ruth May breaks her arm while spying on the local anti-Belgian forces that are gathering. Eeben Axelroot flies Ruth May and her father to Stanleyville, where they visit a doctor. In the airplane, Ruth May notices that Axelroot has a bag full of diamonds, but he threatens her mother's life if she reveals this secret to anyone.
The doctor is surprised to hear about the fighting forces Ruth May has seen. He and Reverend Price get into a heated argument, concerning the propriety of Western interference in the Congo. Nathan maintains that the West is bringing much-needed civilization into Africa, while the doctor counters that the West is doing nothing but taking unfair advantage. The doctor mentions that he is frightened by the rising support for Patrice Lumumba, a charismatic Congolese who is preaching a "nonviolent road to independence" from Belgium. The doctor informs Nathan that at Lumumba's last rally, the crowd became so excited by this idea of nonviolence that they ended up rioting and killing twelve people. There are rumors that the independence-fighters have plans to kill every white person in the Congo. Nathan pooh-poohs the threat of violence toward whites, claiming that God will protect them.
The young man who welcomed the Prices at their arrival feast and has been translating the Reverend's sermons for the villagers ever since, comes over for dinner. He is the local schoolteacher, Anatole. Anatole, we learn, is an orphan who was sent at a young age to work on the Belgian rubber plantations, and then in the diamond mines. The Underdowns saved him from his fate as a slave laborer, taking him in and schooling him, and then installing him as the local schoolteacher.
Over dinner, Anatole lets Reverend Price know that Chief Ndu is worried that the introduction of Christianity might cause a moral decline in the village. Ndu is concerned that his people not neglect their traditional gods and rituals, and fears that disaster will result if they are corrupted by newfangled ideas. Anatole points out to the Prices that there is already a religious leader in their midst, Tata Kuvundu, the much-revered keeper of the old customs. Reverend Price is incapable of conceiving of how a move toward Jesus could be considered moral decline, and he becomes enraged at Anatole for trying to explain this concept to him. He throws Anatole out of the house when Anatole tells him that the villagers are carefully watching them to see whether the Price's god, Jesus, is capable of bringing better luck than the local gods. Once Anatole is gone, Nathan strikes out in anger at his wife, grabbing her violently. He then breaks the one item she had become attached to in Kilanga, a beautiful serving platter left by Brother Fowles.
Nathan's attitude toward his family mirrors both his, and general Western, attitudes toward Africa. We see him here, especially in the last scene, as violent and tyrannical. He exploits his family, and rules within an atmosphere of repression in which no one is permitted to speak their mind except for Nathan himself. In these ways, the governance of his family is much like the Belgian governance of the Congo, and, later, like Joseph Mobutu's CIA-backed dictatorial control of the country.
The atmosphere of dictatorship that prevails in the Price household stems largely from Nathan's sense of superiority over his family members, a sense of superiority that borders on contempt. Nathan is a sexist and a misogynist, rolling his eyes and sighing toward heaven over his daughters' "bovine stupidity," and ridiculing the idea of sending females to college. He is blind to the fact that two of his daughters are more intelligent than he—and one of them id decidedly brilliant. To draw the parallel to the case of African oppression, the sexism need only be replaced with racism. Just as Nathan is unable to view the women in his life as full human beings with their own concerns, desires, needs, and opinions, the ruling Western powers were incapable of doing the same in the case of Africans.
Nathan, understandably, is the axis on which the family turns, but each daughter has a very different attitude toward his dictatorial rule. This attitude tends to determine their attitude toward religion and other forms of authority as well, and thus poises them for the particular crisis of faith that each will eventually undergo.
Leah reveres her father, and believes very much in his mission to bring enlightenment to the unenlightened. She is desperate for his approval, following him around and spouting whatever she thinks he would like to hear. She even compares her father to Jesus at one point, saying that like the Savior he has been "singled out for a life of trial" (Revelation: Leah). Her adoration is unquestioning and fierce, and thus poised for a shattering end.
At the other end of the spectrum is Adah, who views her father with sarcastic contempt as a simplistic and vile man. She jokes that her father was probably happy about the handicap that promised to render his daughter silent, regarding it as a "God's Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees" (Genesis: Adah Price). She is similarly contemptuous of the Christianity she has been taught, particularly of its unjust insistence that only those who are lucky enough to be baptized are allowed into heaven.
Ruth May, as a five year old, does not have any considered opinion of her father, but her overwhelming attitude toward him is fear. Her hear of her father extends to a fear of Jesus, whom she thinks of primarily as a punisher. She is constantly frightened that Jesus has noticed, and is planning revenge for, her small crimes. It is fairly clear that Jesus and her father have merged somewhat in her mind, at least to the extent that she is convinced that "God and them love him the best" (The Judges, Ruth May). Rachel blends the fear of Ruth May with the hatred of Adah. She despises her father, but is not astute enough to view him with anything like Adah's contempt.
Corrections: There are several mistakes in this article, from plot-related to grammatical. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: a) Adah's right side, not her left, is crippled, b) the author used "effect" as a verb, and c) it's wringing, not ringing, near the end. Someone should probably look over this sometime. Also, the article presents Nathan Price as a completely flat character; however, he has his moments of uncertainty (for example, when he reshapes his garden into mounds, or when he reacts to the news of the little girl... Read more→
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I feel that Nathan is not shown as a real protagonist. He isn't even a main character, as the book isn't about his actions, but how the females in his family respond to his actions. He would be more considered an antagonist, if he were more central.