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Nathan Price is the one major character who is never given a voice of his own in the course of the novel. He is seen only through the eyes of his wife and daughters, yet he is the mechanism that gets them to the Congo and the domineering force around which their lives revolves. He is cruel, insensitive, arrogant, cold, and obstinate in the extreme, but in spite of these characteristics which only intensify as the story progresses, he does have occasional flashes of insight that would have value if expressed in a different more loving manner. He is a tragic villain for his actions are the result of a sincere belief that he is serving God to the point of self-sacrifice. His motivation-life-long search for forgiveness for his own cowardice-may be a result of fanaticism in his pre-war days or even an effect of his head injury. Nevertheless, while we see Nathan as a force that leads his family to disaster and accomplishes more negative than positive among his intended flock, his motivation is genuine and all consuming. As each new attempt to reach the African people fails, Nathan is doomed to cave in on himself a little more, believing that he has failed the test of righteousness.
Orleanna is Nathanís wife and the lead voice of the novel. Each of the first five books begins with Orleanna as she tries to piece together the situations and events that culminated in the death of her youngest. She does her best to mother her daughters but did not have the strength she needed to counteract the negative influence of Nathan. Her character is more complex than her influence over her daughters would seem to indicate. As an individual within her family, she is weak, merely going along with whatever Nathan expects and trying to maintain a normal if not always happy home. She makes no major decisions until the moment when she leaves the Congo and only expresses her opinion by implication and by slamming dishes around. Although she does beg Nathan to take them back to the States, she in unable to get him to even pay attention when Ruth May is close to death.
On the other hand, her role in the story telling process is strong and unifying. As a storyteller, she fills in the gaps between what the other narrators saw and what they fully understood. She explains the role of women in a male chauvinist society in which the white, middle class home was a miniature version of a nationís politics and the underdog countries were at the mercy of decisions made by dominant states in the same way that a woman was subject to her husbandís demands and wishes. In the 60's and 70's women in many areas were just beginning to realize that they could and ought to have more authority in their own homes. Thus, while Orleanna appears to be a weak character in the context of the plot, she is a complex part of the story telling team, simultaneously filling the roles of character in her own story, commentator, and social critic.
The oldest child of the family, Rachel had the longest exposure to modern American conveniences and, ironically, the least amount of attention from her pre-occupied parents. Since her family moved frequently and was never financially stable, Rachelís notions of high society and her personal vanity are a bit of a mystery. One conclusion that can be drawn is that Rachel has her fatherís temperament without her fatherís guilt. She is capable of divorcing herself from any sense of responsibility for a situation she did not choose for herself. At the same time, she has the tenacity to simultaneously despise and survive along with a peculiar ability to tap into only as much of her own intelligence as she needs to accomplish her own ends. Ignorance is her physical salvation in a climate hostile to whites. Deliberate arrogance is her emotional stability in a situation, which has isolated her from the people who should mean the most to her.