The story is told principally through the testimonies of the four girls:
- Rachel, the eldest, is a beautiful blonde fifteen year old who dreams of boys and repeatedly uses delightful malapropisms: "All I need is to go back home with some dread disease. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed is bad enough, but to be Thyroid Mary on top of it?".
- Leah, the eldest brunette twin, is a highly intelligent girl who becomes firm friends with the orphaned schoolteacher who secretly organises for Congo's independence.
- Adah her twin was brain-damaged at birth; she hardly ever speaks and is a convinced but silent atheist; she likes to write words backwards and loves palindromes.
- Ruth-May is the baby of the family and understands things from the perspective of a young child.
The father is a man who believes passionately that God rewards virtue. He has a crippled daughter, Adah, who never speaks. When he only had a wife and three daughters he used to complain about the noise: "One Too Many Sopranos in Church". This makes Adah think "Our Father probably interpreted Broca's aphasia as God's Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees." He himself has a tragic story: he was the only survivor of a US army unit that got trapped by the Japanese in the Filipino jungles. Survivor guilt means he cannot quit the Congo jungle, even though every other white person is fleeing and the civil war approaches. In the afterstory, some of his daughters are also trapped in Africa.
The plot proceeds from the difficulties of living in back-woods Africa through to the hostility of the villagers. Then Congo becomes independent and the new Prime Minister is swiftly ousted in a CIA-backed coup. There follows a civil war in which it becomes positively dangerous to be white.
The word epic is overused but this is an epic. The experiences of a single family act as a metaphor to the effect of colonialisation on Africa.
There are many metaphors within the text:
- Methuselah, the old African Grey parrot left behind by the previous, Roman Catholic missionary, who 'went native'. When Our Father, unable to cope with a parrot who uses bad language, releases the bird from its cage, he flies off but is still reliant on the family for food. "Now he has a world. What can he possibly do with it? He has no muscle tone in his wings. They are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery." He is a metaphor for Africa, enslaved and then set loose, with its wings atrophied, unable to fly, forever dependent on others for its survival.
- Adah, the crippled twin (and twins themselves are a source of provocation in a land where twins are exposed at birth), who is unable or unwilling to speak, who loves to say things and see things backwards. She is 'cured' of her crippledness when she is made to learn to walk all over again, from crawling. A metaphor for how to uncripple Africa?
- Rachel with her repeated malapropisms, is a metaphor for how the family repeatedly says or does the wrong thing. And so many of the African words are wrong. Our Father finishes his sermons by exulting that 'Tata Jesus is bangala', a word which, depending on the intonation, can mean several things including 'poisonwood'; the Minister tells his flock that Jesus is a tree that hurts.
- Our Father himself, the hellfire preacher, is a metaphor for the clumsy understanding of his country: "The United States has now become the husband of Zaire's economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitative and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature."
Some remarkable quotes
Book One: Genesis
- "First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees." These are the second and third lines; the final Book is entitled The Eyes in the Trees.
- "The very first bite slowly grew to a powerful burn on my tongue."
- "I believe in God with all my might, but have been thinking lately that most of the details seem pretty much beneath His dignity." Leah on menstruation.
- Rachel on the assorted rags which the Africans wear: "The attitude towards clothing seems to be: if you have it, why not wear it?"
- "That razor strop burns so bad, after you go to bed your legs still feel stripedy like a zebra horse."
- "Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes ... It's hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes." Our Father's attitude to his girl's education.
- "If God had amused himself inventing the lilies of the field, he surely knocked His own socks off with the African parasites."
Book Two: The Revelation
- "He was hardly a father except in the vocational sense, as a potter with clay to be molded."
- "Last week he spoke for an hour on the nonviolent road to independence. The crowd loved it so much they rioted and killed twelve people."
- "Anatole, the schoolteacher, is twenty-four years of age, with all his fingers still on, both hands and both feet, and that is the local idea of a top-throb dreamboat."
- "Anatole gave her compliments left and right, which tells you right there he was either a polite young man or mentally cracked."
- "Pure and unblemished souls must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness."
- "If your brother is going to steal your hen, save your honor and give it to him first."
- "He just stood there brewing like a coffeepot. Only with a coffeepot you know exactly what's going to come out of it."
- "Waiting for a child to die is not an occasion for writing a poem here ... it isn't a long enough wait."
Book Three: The Judges
- "In hard times everyone's eyes get better or at least good enough."
- "The gods you do not pay are the ones that can curse you the best."
- "The wolf was not actually at the door but perhaps merely salivating at the edge of your yard."
- "Watching my father, I've seen how you can't learn anything when you're trying to look like the smartest person in the room."
- "Children should never have to die ... But if they never did, children would not be so precious ... Also if everyone lived to be old, then old age would not be such a treasure."
Book Five: Exodus
- "Sometimes you just have to save your neck and work out the details later."
- "Preventatives for old age are rampant here."
- "Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach lining?"
- "When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up."
- "That's the principal trick of Congolese cooking: rubbing two leaves together to give colour and taste to another day's translucent, nutritionally blank ball of manioc."
- "Rice and soy meal help when we can get them, to balance our amino acids and keep our muscle tissue from digesting itself in the process known picturesquely as kwashiorkor."
- "After that happy-ever-after wedding, they never tell you the rest of the story. Even if you get to marry the prince,you still wake up in the morning with your mouth tasting like drain cleaner and your hair all flat on one side."
- "the rearview mirror is always twenty-twenty."
- "A marital record distinguished for quantity if not quality."
- "The cranky indoor plumbing constantly grumbled at us like God to Noah, threatening the deluge."
Book Six: Song of the Three Children
- "I have a little sign in every room telling guests that are expected to complain at the office between the hours of nine and eleven A.M. daily."
- "Sometimes life doesn't give you all that many chances at being good."
Book seven: The Eyes in the Trees
- "A choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotting tree stumps, sucking life out of death."
- "Being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger."
This is the sequel to Heart of Darkness. Although, at the end, it becomes a little preachy and the Leah-Rachel dichotomy becomes a catechism with obvious answers, this book probably taught me more about the tragedy of Africa than any other. Rachel, of all people (and without being aware of it) says "things fall apart" and thus the book plays homage to the classic of African literature, Things Fall Apart. But this is a classic in the literature of apology for colonialisation.
Kingsolver also wrote The Lacuna, about another shameful episode in America's recent past.