Let me start by saying this is one of the best books I have ever read. I read it a long time ago and picked it up at the library again recently because its subject matter has become very timely - this year Congo celebrates its 50th anniversary of becoming independant from Belgium, and the major events of the book take place during the violent period surrounding Congo's independence in 1960. At the moment there are many commemorative events planned here in Belgium to mark this anniversary and so I thought it a good time to re-read this book.
Aside from being a historical-political novel, which it certainly is, this is also an intimate portrait of a family. The family mirrors the family I grew up in, in that there are daughters. Their father, Reverend Price, a Baptist minister in Georgia, decides to take his wife Orelanna and their four girls to Congo as missionaries. He will be in charge of trying to convert the inhabitants of a small Congo village to christianity, a crusade he takes to with a fiery passion and without any regard for the local customs or diplomacy.
The four daughters are: Rachel, about to turn 16 and more concerned with her hair and clothes than anything else; Leah and Adah, 14-year-old twins who are both incredibly intelligent but still very different as Adah was born paralyzed on one side of her body and does not speak; and Ruth May, the precocious and brave baby of the family. Mother Orelanna has no idea what is in store for herself and her girls until they arrive in the village and discover how difficult it will be to survive the year. Especially when the political situation in the Congo becomes very precarious and her husband refuses to leave, despite the advice from his church. This results in the Price family becoming cut off from all outside support and left to survive on their own and with the good will of the villagers. This ends up having tragic consequences for the family.
As Leah says, "You can't just point to the one most terrible thing and wonder why it happened...Each bad thing causes something worse...you'll go crazy if you think it's all punishment for your sins. I see that plainly when I look at my parents. God doesn't need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves."
What I love about this book is that even after the disaster that ends up pulling the family apart, we still get to follow their lives and see what the long term effects of this experience had on the members of the family. This book also touches on so many themes that I care about: motherhood, marriage, the relationships between sisters, religion, respect for other cultures, living abroad, culture shock, the failure of foreign policy and politics to help African countries, and the nature of evil. At the end of the book, Leah, who once worshipped her father and believed in his goal of saving the world through christianity, must admit that "There is no justice in this world...this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I'll not live to see the meek inherit anything." But at the same time she sees there is the possibility to love, live and experience grace: "What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout the sphere of their influence...there's the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace."
Review: The Summer House
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