"The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."
Sometimes when books fall around the 200 page range, I leave them wanting more. This was not one of those books. It captured the story it needed to tell beautifully, in all the right words, and with just the right amount of emotion.
What I loved most about this novel is that it told two stories simultaneously and in a way that they fit perfectly together. The first story centers on Okonkwo, a strong and powerful man in his village in Nigeria. He has three wives, children, a large family complex, and high standing in his village.
The first part of the novel explores his role as a powerful leader-both the positive and negative aspects that come with being a man others admire. There was one scene that absolutely broke my heart when I read it (if you have read the novel, I hope you know which one-it happens early on) and completely sets the tone for Okonkwo. In that scene, he is forced to make a decision, no only as a leader and a father, but as a man. he must assert himself and his role in his village.
But, he soon loses his place in his village with a horrible decision and his family is banished for seven years. This is where the second story begins. While this seems like a story about a man's role, women's roles, tradition, and family, it is taken a step deeper with the addition of European missionaries into the villages. I'm sure you can sense where this is going.
Things just...fall apart as the Europeans enter and begin to change the lives of the villagers. For men like Okonkwo, who have lived their lives according to tradition and their culture, the presence of this outside force is a threat. Soon members of the villages turn to Christianity. The villagers are faced with choices after being so friendly with the missionaries for some time. Do they continue to allow outsiders into their villages? Or do they fight to protect their traditions and homes?
It is an interesting and complex novel that does a wonderful job of showing the influence of the West on places like Nigeria. Now, I could talk about the religious aspect of it all-that Christians have long been missionaries spreading the Word around the world as they conquer new lands. Religion can bind people together, and by converting others to Christianity, conquerors had an easier time assimilating the native people into their culture. But what I think is more important to address, above the religious aspect, is that certain cultures feel the need to dominate others they see as inferior. This is obvious in the settling of the New World, as Europeans slaughtered, lied to, and tricked Native American tribes. They introduced guns, disease, and a new lifestyle that wiped out many existing cultures. We no longer have the benefit of learning from them as we could have.
I see so many echoes of this in Things Fall Apart. While we might think of Okonkwo's tribe as being primitive, they had lives, traditions, and families before Europeans arrived. And while their lifestyle may have differed drastically from what many might consider normal or acceptable, it was a life.
One of the things that has always irritated me about history (and teaching history), is the one-sided view we give to our youth. Every time I have taught some aspect of U.S. History, I have always tried to emphasize what isn't in the history books (stories like that of Okonkwo). Our history books are written from a mainstream, white perspective, and I don't want my students to follow that line of thinking. I have used the introduction to Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen multiple times in my classes. We all need to realize there is another side to every story, and it is often covered up.
I see much of that in Achebe's novel, which, since it was first published in 1959, makes it ahead of its time. We don't like to see that perhaps we are wrong in spreading our beliefs and traditions around the world, but from the beauty that was prevalent in Okonkwo's life before the Europeans came, it seems like we should think about that (and I am not saying that their lives were perfect or that we should never interfere. I just think that we need to analyze and accept the impact of what we do much more than we have in the past).
But for now, until I get the chance to teach more kids and make them read things like Lies my Teacher Told Me, I can share this kind of novel with as many people as I can. It is a novel not only about a man's struggle within his own society, but also with the changing scope of an ever-diminishing world and the struggles that may bring. And it certainly gives us all a lot to think about.