An overzealous Baptist minister. Nathan is driven by the overwhelming guilt he feels as the only member of his army regimen to escape the Battaan Death March. Certain that God despises him as a coward; he is determined to remain unswerving in the face of all obstacles on his mission to save as many souls as he can. In the process he imperils the souls, as well as the lives, of his wife and four daughters.
Once a carefree, nature-loving, beautiful girl, Orleanna has been beaten down by her husband's dour and fanatical views. Though she fears for her children's safety, she is kept passive by a combination of fear, loyalty, and the belief that God really is on her husband's side. As the danger to her children becomes more tangible, however, Orleanna slowly begins to regain her ability to act out on her own. Unfortunately, it takes the death of her youngest daughter to finally force her to regain full control of her own and her daughter's fates.
At the start of the book, Rachel is a materialistic, egotistical, and stupid girl of fifteen. As we watch her age to fifty, little changes in her personality. Her appearance remains her chief concern, and her own well being the only force that can motivate her. With her good looks, she catches a string of wealthy husbands, one of whom leaves her a luxury hotel deep in the heart of the French Congo.
We first see Leah as an idealistic fourteen-year-old tomboy, who worships her father and believes fully in his God. As she confronts the political and daily realities in the Congo, however, she loses her religious faith, and begins to despise her father. She does not, however, lose her idealism. She ends up spending her life working, with her husband Anatole, to improve the life of the Congolese.
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Leah's twin sister Adah is born with a condition called "hemiplegia," which prevents her from using the left side of her body. Rather than view herself with pity, Adah places herself in voluntary exile from the world, looking on as a wry and brilliant observer, rather than an active participant. She too is changed by the Congo; she is pulled into life and forced to admit that she cares enough to participate. She devotes her life to science, becoming a celebrated epidemiologist.
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Five-year-old Ruth May enters the Congo fierce and adventurous. Without speaking the language she manages to befriend all of the children in the village. After a bad bout with malaria, however, she becomes quiet and spiritless. Obsessively frightened by green mamba snakes, she is ultimately killed by one.
A mercenary pilot and CIA operative who is integral in the United States orchestrated coup which overthrows Patrice Lumumba. Slimy and immoral, he refuses the deliver the Price's weekly mail and provisions without a bribe. In order to avoid marrying Chief Ndu, Rachel is forced to pretend that she is engaged to Axelroot. The fake engagement leads into a several yearlong fake marriage when he saves Rachel from the Congo by flying her to South Africa.
Intelligent and idealistic, Anatole is the English-speaking schoolteacher in the village of Kilanga, as well as the translator for Reverend Price's weekly sermons. He marries Leah and becomes active in subversive political activities against the dictatorial Mobutu regime.
The previous missionary in Kilanga, but was removed from the post due to inappropriate fraternizing with the natives. Indeed, as it turns out when the Prices finally meet him, he married a native woman. Brother Fowles has a deep understanding of and sympathy for the Congolese people and their religion, and provides an attractive contrast to the blind and base Christianity of Reverend Price.
A parrot, left for the Prices by Brother Fowles. Early on in their stay, Nathan flings Methuselah from his cage, giving him freedom. Methuselah, however, does not know what to do with his independence. He never strays far from the house, and depends on the Price girls for his food. On the day that the Republic of Congo is granted its independence from Belgium, Methuselah is killed by a civet cat.
Nelson is an orphan and Anatole's best student. He works for the Prices, helping them to get along in the Congo in exchange for a place to sleep and some eggs to sell in the marketplace, so that he can save up for a wife. Unusually bright, Nelson picks up English quickly and helps the girls learn the native language and customs.
Tata Ndu is the village chief. He is wary of Reverend Price and his proselytizing, afraid that a move toward Christianity will effect a moral decline in his village. He does not want the people to neglect their traditional gods. He tries in many subtle and tactful ways to inform the Prices that their presence is not welcome, but Nathan obtusely ignores these signals.
The much-revered keeper of the old traditions, the religious leader of the village. Like Chief Ndu he is unhappy about Reverend Price's presence, and concerned that the traditions of the village be upheld. Unlike Chief Ndu, however, he does not take a subtle and diplomatic route to ridding himself of the Prices. Instead, he begins to plant poisonous mamba snakes next to the beds of those connected to the Price family. One of these snakes, intended for Nelson, ends up killing Ruth May.
Belgian nationals who run the finances for several missionary organizations. They are emblematic of the whites in the Belgian Congo, living in splendor just a few miles from the squalid homes of the natives, and showing only suspicion and contempt for their unfortunate and much-abused African neighbors. The Underdowns evacuate the Congo as soon as independence is granted, and are horrified when the Prices do not do the same.
Worked as the live-in helper for Brother Fowles, and was supposed to perform the same role in the Price household. She is so outraged by Nathan's obtuse insistence on baptism, as well as by the contemptuous manner in which he treats her helpful suggestions, that she abandons the Prices, forcing them to fend for themselves.
A nine-year old Congolese boy who befriends Leah. Later in life, Leah hears that he was killed by Mobutu's soldiers while walking on the road. Leah names her first-born son after him.
Anatole's aunt. She moves in with Leah and Anatole and becomes Leah's only female companion.
Leah and Anatole's first-born son, named after Leah's childhood friend.
Leah and Anatole's second-born son, named after Patrice Lumumba.
Leah and Anatole's third son.
Leah and Anatole's youngest son, named after Leah's now-dead father.
Leah's friend in the French mission.
The charismatic first elected president of the Republic of Congo, who preached a gospel of peace and prosperity. He was beaten to death during a military coup orchestrated by the United States government.
The greedy and immoral puppet of the Western powers, put into the dictatorship after Lumumba was assassinated. For thirty years he kept his nation in abject poverty, while he himself lived like a king.
A Congolese doctor-poet, who became the first president of the independent nation of Angola. Anatole was engaged in a vigorous correspondence with him, and was asked to serve in his government.