Dick Slepy's faith fails him. He cannot control his wife, Seena, and he doesn't understand his youngest daughter, Amaryllis. The oldest and third daughters--Mary Grace and Mary Tessa--are usually up to no good, but at least he has Mary Catherine, the good daughter, the God-fearing daughter.
In the summer of 1976, when life at the cottage in northern Michigan should have revolved around sun and fun and berry picking, Dick's women have broken out of his orbit, and he is desperate to draw them them back in. Fearing that his sins are the cause of his misfortunes, Dick turns to the local priest. When Father Amadi suggests that Dick take his family to the Gold Coast "to find peace through giving," the latter senses this is God's will and Africa can offer atonement. That Africa will make his family more dependent on him is a just a bonus.
In Christina Meldrum's Amaryllis in Blueberry, each member of the Slepy family tells part of the family's journey from upper-middle-class Midwesterners to clueless medical missionaries in West Africa. The characters are distinct enough that their individual perspectives bring something different to the family story, but most events are told through the self-centered focus of one of the teenage girls, leaving readers wanting to know more. The defining moments, however, are given a three-dimensional reality, so those scenes are memorable, blurring the rest of the novel into an incohesive fog.
Meldrum reveals the harder lessons of the Slepys' history through Amaryllis's view point. The eleven-year-old is unique in the family, not only because of her name and coloring but also in her ability to see people for what they are. Amaryllis's chapters are introspective rather than plot-driven, and she is given the keys to love, life, and truth:
Love is ugly and full of hate even as it's tender and kind. There is nothing pure about love. It's the impurity that is love. I know that now. (p. 187)Despite providing snippets for discussion and contemplation, the novel falls short. Some plot lines were dead ends or were distracting, and seemingly important characters were introduced but then dropped. The biggest jolt, however, was the swiftness of the African action, which takes place over the course of a few weeks.
Life is a gift. . . . When it ends, you don't ask, "Why me?" You ask, "Why not me?" (p. 245)
That's the thing Africa taught me about truth. You know it's truth because it's busy. Any seeming truth that's idle? Well, that's just not truth. (p. 359)
While it is certainly true that missionary work in a Third World country, especially in the 1970s, would have a profound effect on a family like the Slepys, it is difficult to believe that those changes would happen in a matter of days. The girls have barely stepped off the plane before they have fallen in love, accepted the traditions of the local peoples, and made friends. The quick adjustment and immersion into the local culture were difficult to believe.
Amaryllis in Blueberry was my book club's selection for May. Several members pointed out that the novel was very similar to The Poisonwood Bible (which I haven't read) and were turned off on that point alone. There was a slight division by age: The older members appreciated the cultural context and references to the 1970s and understood the parenting style of that era. The younger members were less comfortable with those aspects of the novel.
Give it to me quickly: Controlling father takes his family to Africa, looking for redemption; instead of absolving them of their sins, the Dark Continent only intensifies what has been smoldering within, bringing their true natures to full flame.
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Published by Simon & Schuster / Gallery Books, 2011
Source: Review (see review policy)
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