This book is about an American Christian Missionary who is going to spend a year in the Congo in the 1960s. The story is told from the point of view of his wife and his four daughters - the eldest, Rachel, sweet sixteen and not too impressed she needs to live in Africa for a year, twins, Leah and Adah, Leah the headstrong one desperate to impress her father and follow in his footsteps, and Adah who suffers from hemiplegia, doesn't speak much, and tends to read things backwards, looking for palindromes everywhere, and the baby of the family, Ruth May, trying to keep up with her older sisters. Things do not quite go as planned and the family quickly learns that. They eventually suffer an unspeakable tragedy and the second half of the book deals with the aftermath of that. I remember I used to think this second half went on too long, but when I read it this time, I enjoyed it more, perhaps because I'm older now and see myself in the mothers and women telling that second part, rather than the teenagers/children who are the tellers of the first half of the novel.
We get bits and pieces of what Congo and Africa was going through at that time, elections, independence from Belgium, US plots to counter communism, violence, illness, drought, etc. The history is true and it helps to read the Wikipedia page on Congo to see how the various points of view weave this history together.
This book is so well written, mostly because it has five distinct voices, each girl/woman with their own perspective, sometimes looking back (as the mother is always doing), and the others in the present, not knowing what is to come (and then later knowing all too well what has happened). I wish I had read this book in university as I think I could come up with several topics to write essays on - from both a literary side, but also a look at Christianity and Africa, missionary work, etc.
There are a few passages in the book that I have marked that are beautiful and sad all at once - one is a story about what the Portuguese would have seen when they landed on the shores of Africa for the first time. Not the stereotypical savages who needed saving (sound familiar Canadians?) but instead a thriving society, doing quite well on its own, thank you very much. It is like a "what could have been" moment, if the people had been treated with respect, left alone, and seen as contemporaries, not less than the explorers coming from distant lands.
It's a beautiful book, tragic, yes, but wonderful.