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The primary conflict in the novel is the same for each major character, but each character responds differently. Each of the Price women has been transported to the Congo and must figure out a way to either leave or live with the situation into which they have been placed. Nathanís conflict is also with the Congo, but in a different way. He feels called to convert and civilize a culture about which he knows nothing. He has no compassion for the people to whom he plans to minister; his motivation is only to appease the displeasure, which he imagines is directed at him by God because of his wartime cowardice. He is driven to sacrifice himself in some way and is not in the least concerned that he is sacrificing his family for his own need.
There is no single protagonist in this novel unless a reader chooses to analyze the Congo as a silent protagonist. The story is told in an epistolary style with multiple voices, each giving her unique perspective on experiences and events. The female characters are equally important as each tells the story of learning to cope with a new culture, a new home, a new life-all radically different from anything they had been taught to expect. The characters are removed from their comfort zones and put in a place where no single individual, let alone white person, is in charge. Salvation takes on a different meaning from the one Nathan Price preaches in his pulpit. While he loses his, each of the women must decide how or if she will find a way of saving herself.
The initial antagonist for the women is Nathan Price, father, preacher, husband. After the death of Ruth May, Nathan moves into the background, and each woman must deal with her own individual demon. For Orleanna, it is her guilt over having allowed the family to be taken to the Congo in the first place. For Rachel, it is jealousy and a poor self-image. For Adah it is her image of herself as defective and the identification of personal responsibility. For Leah, the demon is the political crisis of the Congo and her own white skin.
The climax for the entire family is the death of Ruth May who is killed by a green mamba snake. The snake is planted in the hen house by Tata Kuvudundu, a Kilanga witch doctor who objected to having a Leah participate in the traditional manís role on a hunt. The snake was intended for Nelson, their houseboy. After the incident, Ruth Mayís spirit becomes one with the green mamba and with the continent of Africa. The remaining women continue the story of their altered lives.
Just as each womanís salvation is arrived at through a different perspective, so each takes an individual path following the death of Ruth May. Orleanna returns to Georgia and spends her life telling her story and trying to find forgiveness. Rachel flies to South Africa with Eben Axelroot where she survives three men and spends the remainder of her life running a high-class hotel. Leah marries Anatole Ngemba, makes her own life in Africa, raises four boys, and helps her husband build first a school and then a farming commune for the people of the African societies where she lives. Ironically, she never quite forgives herself for being white. Adah returns to Georgia with her mother, attends medical school and becomes a doctor.
She ultimately leaves the medical practice because of contradictions she sees between the expectations of the medical community and the realities of the African people. Instead, she spends most of her adult life studying viruses. Nathan Price remains in Africa where he goes insane and tries to start a new denomination of his own. Eventually he is accused of the deaths of a boatload of children and is chased down and burned to death in an old Belgian watchtower.