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Monday, August 17, 2009

What Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash Have in Common With Each Other and With My Novel Choosing Sides

By some measures, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash, and my novel Choosing Sides could not be more different. Achebe’s novel takes place in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s. Rash’s novel is located in the Appalachian region of South Carolina beginning in the early 1950s. Choosing Sides, a story about a devout Puerto Rican immigrant family, takes place in Puerto Rico and Indiana, also beginning in the early 1950s. Despite these fundamental differences, the three novels share the following elements.

They portray the tragic outcome of a clash of cultures. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the arrival of the British colonialists pits existing, functional Ibo customs against the conquerors’ incompatible legal, social, and religious customs. Compromise or assimilation with the British without destruction of the traditional culture is virtually impossible. The same is true in Rash’s One Foot in Eden. The utility company takeover of family-owned farmland, to flood it in order to build a dam, obliterates a long-standing way of life. In Choosing Sides, the young protagonist Angélica can either adhere to her family’s strict fundamentalist Pentecostal religion or join her worldly friends who date, dance, wear makeup, and go to movies. She can’t do both without being either punished or ostracized. The result is that she is lost in the gaps between her two worlds, unable to belong to either one.

As a consequence of the clash in cultures, the contributions and value of the elder generation are compromised. Traditional social structures are vanquished or modified beyond recognition. In Things Fall Apart, the ancestors’ guidance in daily life is lost. A functional tribal leadership and justice system is replaced by an external, foreign governing structure. The oracles for the Ibo Gods lose their power in favor of a Christian clergy advocating for Jesus Christ. The traditional stratification of society into desirables and undesirables is upended in favor of the undesirables when the latter become ready and welcomed disciples of the foreign Christian religion. In One Foot in Eden, an agricultural way of life is replaced by one not tied to the land. Instead of a farm, whether sharecropped or owned, the textile mills become the employers. In the process, the older generation is gelded. In Choosing Sides, Angélica’s Spanish-speaking parents move from rural Puerto Rico to heavily industrialized English-speaking Indiana and lose their status as credible arbiters of the world outside their home and church.

Suicide figures as the only acceptable choice for those who cannot imagine themselves integrating into the new way of life. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the lead character, cannot accommodate himself to the powerlessness he foresees for himself living under British rule. In One Foot in Eden, the Widow Winchester sets herself on fire rather than move out of her home so the utility company can flood her land. Billy and Amy in effect commit suicide when they plunge into a swiftly moving river from which they have no hope of emerging. In Choosing Sides, given the near impossibility of integrating Angélica’s clashing worlds, the potential is always present for a different kind of suicide, in this case, severe alienation and self-destructive behavior; if not, a tragic loneliness.

The integration of religion into daily life is seamless. In Things Fall Apart, the Gods and their oracles weigh in on every decision from planting to marriage to the survival of infants. In One Foot in Eden, the Christian church is not only the social glue of the community, but it influences attitudes such as the inability to flee punishment for ill deeds. In addition, Ron Rash utilizes extensively Biblical imagery, such as the flood and the crucifixion. In Choosing Sides, the Pentecostal religion governs, among other things, how you dress, what friends you can keep, and what books you can read. Unceasing prayer and devotion weave themselves into the daily lives of Angélica’s committed Pentecostal family, especially after her father becomes a minister.

Exile plays a role in all three novels. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is temporarily exiled to his motherland after he accidentally kills someone. In One Foot in Eden, an entire society of land-based owners and workers is exiled from their traditional way of life. In Choosing Sides, ruinous poverty exiles Angélica’s family from its rain forest cabin to a two-room walkup in bitterly cold Indiana. Then, when she rejects the Pentecostal religion, Angélica in effect exiles herself from both her immediate family and the extended family of the church.

More than one language is in play. Chinua Achebe has referred to his work as a conversation between two languages: the traditional Ibo and the new English. In One Foot in Eden, the traditional Appalachian rural expressions begin to be supplanted by urban language. In Choosing Sides, Angélica must navigate four languages—Spanish, English, religious, and secular.

The cultural clash common to all three novels does not have uplifting consequences. In each, a sense of inevitability drives the tragic outcome. Despite this, all three novels present a glimmer of hope in the end. In Things Fall Apart, it is in the form of the clan’s refusal to take down Okonkwo’s body, signifying that, despite all, they can still cleave to their traditions. In One Foot in Eden, the Sheriff’s likely parenting of Isaac and Isaac’s entry into Clemson open possibilities for a functional future life. In Choosing Sides, Angélica takes down the Revenge sign, indicating an openness to forgiving her mother. Throughout, Angélica draws comfort from her memories of the magical waterfalls near her early rain forest cabin.

1 comment:

Hank said...

In contrasting these three very different novels, the author exhibits a sure hand. She knows well the subject of cultural change and its devastating impact on traditional ways of life.