An unnamed narrator describes a vivid nature scene, with vines, ants, trees, and snakes. Four girls and a woman enter the scene. The mother exercises wordless control over the girls. She warns the reader to be careful—“you’ll have to decide what sympathy they deserve.”
Right off the bat, we’re informed that this isn’t going to be a straightforward tale of good and evil. Instead, it’s a complex “jungle’ of right and wrong—none of the characters is perfect, so we have to figure out for ourselves who to trust.
The woman in this scene is the mother of the four girls—she lives in constant fear that something horrible is going to happen to one of her offspring. The narrator explains that she is the mother in the scene—Orleanna Price. She is a Southern Baptist by marriage, and the “mother of children living and dead.” In the scene, a beautiful animal, an okapi, comes to the forest, and Orleanna is the only one to see it. It’s only years later that Orleanna learns the name of the creature she’s seen—she has to look it up in the library.
Although the five Price women aren’t the only people in the Price family, it’s true that the novel is told from a feminine perspective: each chapter is narrated from the point of view of a different Price woman or girl. Orleanna’s sighting of the okapi immediately opens the book with a sense of ambiguity. The okapi (a real mammal related to a giraffe) is a mysterious, semi-mythical creature whose symbolic meaning will be explored again (see Symbols).
The year of the scene is 1960: the Space Race is well under way, and there is military turmoil in the Congo. Orleanna was there in the Congo, due to her husband and her children. She admits that no one in her family really needed her much—her husband, a Baptist preacher, didn’t love her, and her firstborn child ignored her from the beginning. And yet Orleanna insists that she has “a life of her own.” She’s seen unbelievable things in the Congo: beautiful birds, ants and flies, trees and fires.
Orleanna is probably the closest thing to an objective witness in the novel: we can’t trust everything she says about her husband and children, but she’s usually the character who gives us the important expository information. Here, for example, she sets the scene: we’re at the height of the Cold War, and the U.S. is involved in a series of foreign policy decisions that have since been greatly criticized.
Orleanna is an old woman now, but she thinks back to 1960, when she experienced Africa in all its glory. She will speak of “the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.”
The novel is structured as a memory. This suggests that something important—traumatic, even—happened in the Congo, which haunts Orleanna to this day.