Orleanna begins by addressing a “little beast,” speaking as the little beast’s mother. Orleanna points out that there have always been fathers like Nathan, who think that daughters should work, bear children, and do nothing else. She hoped for a day when her daughters could walk away from their father’s ideas.
As the novel goes on, we get more insight into Orleanna’s mind. Orleanna doesn’t want her children to grow up to be obedient wives—she wants to save them from the same fate she met herself. The nickname “little beast,” as we’ll learn, refers to Ruth May.
Orleanna thinks back to her “downfall.” She had a happy childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and survived the Great Depression in conditions similar to the ones she’d find in the Congo years later. Her father, Bud Wharton, was an eye doctor. When Orleanna was older, she became a “Free Will Baptist,” something that irritated her father, who believed in the “religion” of his medical practice, and nothing else. Orleanna met Nathan at the age of 17, when he was handsome and charismatic. He was already very pious, and told Orleanna that he was going to “save” her. Nathan visited Orleanna all the time, while also working hard with his congregation. Marrying him felt like the natural next step.
At this late stage in her life, Orleanna can look back on her youth and understand the mistakes she made. It’s because she feels the impact of these mistakes that she’s always been so careful to encourage her daughters to be free and independent people. Essentially, Orleanna’s great mistake was to believe that Nathan could save her—i.e., that he represented some kind of perfect solution to her problems.
Orleanna married Nathan in the late 1930s. After that, she was saddened when America declared war on Japan and Nathan shipped off to fight, despite the fact that (as a clergyman) he was technically exempt from duty. Nathan was only gone for three months. His company fought in the Pacific, and saw active combat late one night. Nathan was struck in the head by a shell fragment, and ended up suffering a concussion that sent him to the hospital. He credits God with saving his life. Orleanna claims that this was the last she knows of the man she married—a kind, funny, affectionate young man.
This is a surprisingly sympathetic account of Nathan’s life: Orleanna accepts that Nathan has been made the man he is today by the tragedies of war, rather than some innate sense of meanness or boorishness. It’s tragic and somewhat ironic that Nathan himself is a victim of America’s military—as we’ll see in the second half of this book, the American military will do great damage to the people of the Congo.
After Nathan left the hospital, he was sent to Bataan, where he and his peers were captured, marched through the jungle, and tortured and starved for months. At the last moment, MacArthur’s troops freed Nathan from the Death March, saving his life. When Nathan returned, Orleanna could see right away that he’d become a different man.
The Bataan Death March is often remembered as one of the darkest chapters of World War II—a time when American soldiers were treated brutally by their Japanese captors. We can surmise that Nathan went through some sort of trauma, and probably has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now back in the South, Orleanna compares her early days of marriage to Nathan (After he returned from Bataan) to being dominated by a “foreign power.” She felt that she was married to an idea, a plan, rather than a person. Nathan had ambitions to preach God’s plan for the rest of his life, and impress upon his own children the laws of Christianity. He interpreted Adah’s medical problems as God’s punishment—though for what, Orleanna was never sure.
This is one of the key passages in the book: the equation of Nathan’s sexist, domineering patriarchy and aggressive foreign policy. This isn’t always a perfect analogy, but the suggestion would seem to be that Orleanna, in being dominated for so long by an abusive husband, intuitively grasps some of what the people of the Congo are going through.
Nathan believed one thing: God rewards the righteous. Orleanna went through her marriage with a constant sense of being punished—for being beautiful; for being ogled by other men; for giving birth to a child with a serious medical problem; for being a bad wife. Orleanna tells her “little beast” that she’s long since lost her wings, though she may have gotten them back. She concludes by comparing the Congo to a “bride” who’s had her jewels taken from her by men who “promised the Kingdom.”
Orleanna is made to feel that it’s her fault when men ogle her. It’s heartbreaking to see Orleanna continuing to grapple with this psychological issues decades after she’s left her husband behind. It’s hard to shake certain habits of thought—Orleanna might consciously realize that she shouldn’t be blaming herself for the tragedies in her life, but she also can’t prevent herself from thinking in such terms.