by Chinua Achebe
This novel, considered a classic and an important social commentary of the time, was originally published in 1958, during a time of political turmoil in Nigeria. The story takes place in late nineteenth century Nigeria, and centers around Okwonko, an affluent and respected man in his Ibo tribe. Okwonko is driven by a desire to be nothing like his own father, a hapless lay about who died deeply in debt, and in his determination to be the man his father never was, tends towards harshness and even cruelty towards his three wives and numerous children. After years of hard work and determination, Okwonko has achieved and accumulated almost more than he dreamed of, and is on the verge of becoming a titled member of the tribe, when a terrible accident occurs, sending him and his family into exile for seven years. During that time, European missionaries arrive in Nigeria and bring with them Christianity and their own form of government, which they are determined to see adopted by the barbarian natives. By the time Okwonko comes out of exile, everything in his village has changed – and most alarming, his eldest son has converted to Christianity.
Achebe unflinchingly describes tribal life at the time, and it’s easy to see it as archaic and barbaric, its superstitious beliefs and rituals ridiculous. But that’s the way it was, and they held their beliefs as dearly and as sacred as any Christian (and can we really fail to see many Christian rituals and beliefs as superstitious and ridiculous?). At its heart, the novel is about a man who unwittingly drives his own downfall, and its a harsh criticism of European colonialism.
Very readable. It’s not a book that I would have chosen on my own to read, but it was chosen by my book club. My oldest son was assigned this novel in his senior high school English class this past year, so he and I had some good discussions about it.