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 A splendidly nuanced story of four late Victorians trying to live with honor amid conflicting moral imperatives in British Colonial Africa. Clara Musson, Jeal's (Until the Colors Fade, 1976, etc.) protagonist, is the only daughter of a wealthy English factory- owner. The Mussons are devout Christians, but Clara, a remarkable mix of cool thinking and passions, both moral and spiritual, lost her faith when her mother died. Later, a romantic attachment ended badly, so when charismatic Robert Haslam, a missionary from Africa, comes to town, Clara is especially receptive. Robert, devout, even saintly, has dedicated his life to preaching the Gospel and improving the lives of African villagers in what is now Zimbabwe. The two marry, but Robert returns to Africa ahead of Clara, and on her journey by wagon to Robert's mission she meets Francis Vaughan, a chivalrous but impecunious British soldier. The fourth exemplar of virtue is Mponda, the tribal chief whom Robert wants to convert, but Mponda's family and advisers, particularly Nashu, the traditional medicine man, suspect that Christianity is part of the white man's efforts to take away their land and customs. Clara, though appalled by how little support Robert's mission has, does her best to help. But white prospectors and black fears and ambitions--Mponda's son wants to be chief--create the setting for the moral choices all four must make. War breaks out, and Clara, disillusioned by Robert's obsession to convert Mponda, falls in love with Francis, who arrives with troops to put the rebellion down. Choices, all honorable and some fatal, are finally made during the ensuing carnage, and Clara, understanding that one does what one thinks is the best, though the costs can be enormous, leaves Africa for good. Love and ``quieter pleasures,'' however, are at hand. One of those rare novels that raises big questions and, without being didactic, tries to answer them with a story that satisfies richly on every level.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-688-11871-2
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996