The story takes place in a fictional 1890s village along the Niger River, inhabited by Igbo people in what is now Nigeria. It tells the story of Okonkwo, once a great wrestler and warrior, who now lives with his large family and grows yams with the rest of his tribe. The first half of the book focuses on both Okonkwo's ancestors and children as he navigates complicated decisions in the midst of breaking with the traditions of his people.
The images that constantly weave through the narrative are as organic as storytelling can get. The people of Okonkwo's tribe often call upon things like the sound of a bird or the movements of a cat to describe the people and objects around them. Everything depends on the jungle, or that year's harvest of yams, or someone's sacrifice to the appropriate god.
Each characterizing idea is expressed through a song or an oral history passed down through countless generations. The best part is that no matter how the reader sees a metaphor or hears the music it implies, Achebe perfectly assigns it every time. The setting, as a direct parallel, reflects these metaphors simply as the organic and natural place where they occur. It couldn't get any more primordial in the way a man's masculinity shows itself or the way a child responds to their parent's behavior. Every single detail of the story expresses our human emotions in ways we take for granted in today's modern world.
Generations are the units of time through which this novel tells its stories. Family lineages weave through it just like its incredible images, representing past versions of the same character, or a new generation that questions the authority of tribal traditions. Okonkwo is thrust into the middle of this realm, uncertain of his own identity, and eventually commits an act that leads to his exile.
The second half is where Okonkwo's complications are multiplied. While in exile, a group of white, Christian missionaries come to his old village and begin to assimilate with the people. As a result, they instill a new government meant to improve the quality of life and "faith" of Okonkwo's people. This occurs over the course of his seven-year exile, and when he finally returns Okonkwo doesn't recognize the place he once called home. He's equally torn by the interest his oldest son takes in this new religion, causing a new generational rift that echoes ancient stories of the Igbo people.
I read this book in a matter of two days, not because it was an easy read, but because I absolutely had to continue. When I finally put the novel down I felt exhausted, along with a hint of regret about not having read it earlier. I hope new readers of this novel understand that its characters and its themes are just as relevant for us in today's America as they were for the Igbo people in the 1890s.
By Andrew Wiechert