Reading Guide Questions For General Audiences

1. What types of images of Africa did Joshua have before traveling to South Africa? How and when did those impressions change after his arrival to South Africa?

2. In writing her nature scenes – first at the pond near Philadelphia, and then during the three waterfall scenes – the author makes allusions to Henry Thoreau’s Walden. In what ways? What is the significance?

3. What was the significance of the “Lu’s hands” flashback in the novel?

4. Joshua still seemed troubled about the death of his cousin Darius, who was killed as he fought as a U.S. soldier in a segregated troop during World War I. What parallels are there between Darius’s choice to serve in World War I and Joshua’s choice to eventually leave his mission?

5. What were the last images of America that Joshua saw when leaving the United States aboard a goods ship? Why would those images become important symbolically?

6. During his initial trans-Atlantic journey by ship to Africa, Joshua hears a voice that seems to echo within itself, until it numbers thousands, rising from the waters. He also sees an image of a long-winged bird in the sky that appears to be tied down, trying to set itself free. What do you think the author was trying to symbolize?

7. Joshua traveled back to Africa via a goods ship in a “reversed Middle Passage.” In what ways was this symbolic?

8. What was the role of the character Marvin, Joshua’s cabin mate on the ship Amissa? Why did Marvin quote the words of Jesus to Joshua, “rise, take up thy bed, and walk”?

9. What parallels does the author draw between how Joshua experiences his family in America, and the new family he forms in South Africa with the Raggedy Woman and the Maganus? What elements help create this parallel?

10. One of the main characters, the Brother, is white, yet those around him flocked to his sermons and also comment that he “wore his black skin like pride.” Why? What themes were underscored in terms of the role of race in the dilemmas faced by Joshua?

11. Over time, Joshua feels conflicted about how he is preaching in South Africa. What was the source of that conflict? When did he start to react to his feelings of internal conflict? What were his specific actions and do you think he went far enough? Do you believe that Joshua walked an appropriate line between his role as a missionary and any political acts?

12. In multiple scenes we see Nongolesi writing down Xhosa oral history on paper in a way that made the paper look like “royal parchment.” Why was it important to see these scenes as a part of this novel?

13. The author names the Bible written in Xhosa a “marula Bible.” What was the significance of calling that Bible a “marula” Bible?

14. How would you characterize the image of rural living put forth by the author when writing about the Ulundi School, farm life, and traditional life? What did you learn about Xhosa traditional customs, like the male initiation rites?

15. The author makes a point to describe the extended family as it has existed traditionally in Xhosa culture? What benefits are there of the extended family structure and to what degree do you see this sort of structure reflected in western culture?

16. The author draws a contrast between traditional living and the way traditional life was being destroyed. What was being lost as the traditional Xhosa way of living was being strained? What was the significance of including the train ride scene in which African miners asked Joshua about prostitution?

17. When Joshua found out that his status was that of an “honorary white” in South Africa, one of the students looked at him with “amused pity.” This is an allusion to W.E.B. Du Bois’ writing on Double Consciousness. Why do you think the author used those terms to describe one of the student’s reactions to Joshua?

18. How did Joshua greet the news that his status in South Africa was that of an “honorary white”? Why do you believe that the South African government in the 1930s chose to grant black Americans the distinction of “honorary whites” rather than treating them as Africans?

19. Why did Joshua sense a parallel to the imprisonment of African political protesters at Nocno and the situation of African Americans? Was the first prison scene a turning point for Joshua?

20. Why did Joshua’s congregation members initially look at him with “forgiving eyes?” Why did the students initially refer to him by the Xhosa words for “Not Dead”? What was the significance when Joshua’s nickname changed to Makinda, meaning “Young Bird”?

21. What was the Raggedy Woman’s role in the novel?

22. What was the role of Andrew in the novel?

23. What was Sarah’s role in the novel?

24. What was the significance of the children’s book – similar to the Little Black Sambo books of the 1900s-1930s – that Lucius sent to Joshua?

25. How do you think the author portrayed the African students at Fort Hare? How would you characterize the hopes and dreams of students such as Ogenga and Jovan?

26. What was the point of including the character of Mhlobo, a man who had been crippled in the South African mines?

27. Throughout the novel, a voice sang to Joshua in Xhosa. What do you believe that voice represented? What evidence do you point to in order to support that interpretation?

28. Why did Joshua feel a weight lifted when, in his dreams, Darius confessed at the end of the novel that if he had to, he’d do it again? What was “it” referring to?

29. What did the “Double V” represent when Darius held up two fingers in the dream Joshua had about Darius at the end of the novel?

30. Joshua reads a poem out to Nongolesi by the river, in which he confesses he is looking at her with “waking eyes.” The words are an allusion to a poem by Langston Hughes called “Africa.” To what degree do you believe that Joshua’s falling in love with Nongolesi also represents Joshua falling in love with Africa? In that same poem, the author weaves many references to the Biblical book of Song of Solomon. Why? What was the significance of placing this scene beside a river?

31. The author includes a lobola negotiation as a part of the romance of Joshua and Nongolesi. Was this appropriate in your view? How had the Raggedy Woman explained the notion of lobola? How does it differ from the notion of dowries in other countries, if at all?

32. What was the significance of Joshua’s trip to the Transkei? What was the significance of the Tree of Everlasting Hope?

33. How did the birth of Little Darius change Joshua, if at all?

34. In what ways did life in Ginsberg differ from life in the rural villages?

35. What significance was Mhlobo trying to convey through his portrait of Jesus, which he was preparing for the East London march?

36. Why do you think it was important that Joshua helped establish a church and a school in Ginsberg?

37. What meaning did Joshua see in the portrait of the Bible that his congregation hung in the new church in Ginsberg?

38. As Joshua is being led from Ginsberg in the final pages of the novel, he whispers words to Mr. Garrett, but the author does not tell you what those words are. What do you think Joshua whispered to Mr. Garrett? What should Joshua have whispered to Mr. Garrett?

39. During his initial trans-Atlantic journey by ship to Africa, Joshua sees an image of a long-winged bird in the sky that appears to be tied down, trying to set itself free. Why, upon his journey back to America at the end of the novel, had that image in the sky seemed to change? How had that image changed, and what did this symbolize?

© Shelly Leanne 2003, All Rights Reserved.