Emma grew up in the 1840′s in Georgia, the daughter of slave owners. From an early age she knew it was wrong to own other human beings, but she did not know what she could do about this terrible injustice. Her father was unpersuadable on this point, and feelings of guilt grew steadily inside her as she saw people she cared about being mistreated and maimed.
Henry also grew up feeling tremendous guilt, but from a different source. His mother, whom he revered, died when he was young. The only way he could find to assuage his sorrow was to travel ceaselessly from place to place, fighting the Indians with Texas Rangers, or just drifting.
Emma and Henry meet after Henry’s religious conversion, when he has decided to become a missionary, to pour all his dissatisfaction and wanderlust into the service of the gospel. For Emma, Henry represents an escape from the boredom and injustices of home. He will take her to Africa—the big country on her father’s globe, the country where Uncle Eli and Mittie Ann and Carl come from.
From this point follows an amazing and beautiful story of two people who grow to love each other—and their new country—under the most trying of circumstances. Orr based her fictional story upon the lives of Lurana and Thomas Bowen, the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Africa, with reminiscences from her own missionary parents.
Henry and Emma do not come across as heroes; indeed, they have much to learn from the African wisdom that is pragmatic and close to nature, though possessed of a deep spirituality. Henry’s near-fatal bouts with malaria drive him to the brink of madness while Emma is heavily pregnant with their child. In her loneliness and desperation, she feels a strong attraction to the African man, Jacob, who takes care of them. The choices she makes under these difficult circumstances will impact their lives, their mission, and their community.
Orr’s compressed, restrained style allows the story to unfold slowly and beautifully, without forcing any morals on us. Emma, Henry, and the diverse people they meet on their new continent are fully realized and sympathetic characters, each one unique and compelling. It is a tale of loss, tragedy, triumph, and humility—all in all, a very human tale that will continue to haunt me for years to come.
Elaine Orr along with several other local authors will be at West Regional Library on September, 24th, please visit our website for more details.