Olympia physician Ngozi Achebe has storytelling in her blood. Not only is the renowned novelist Chinua Achebe her uncle, but the acknowledgements section of her debut novel, "Onaedo: The Blacksmith's Daughter," credits many other family members as well for their rich tradition of storytelling and deep regard for books.
Born in England and raised in Nigeria during the Biafran war, Achebe has a keen understanding of how dramatic events can affect ordinary lives. Her particular interest in the advent of the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa in the 16th century is the basis for this novel, which describes a woman’s coming of age in a harsh era. Onaedo, the principal character, is a headstrong young woman from a prominent family in the Igbo ethnic group. Once she is of marrying age, her refusal to consider the suitors who come calling is enough to give her mother fits that any Jane Austen fan might recognize. Instead, Onaedo has her heart set on marrying an indentured woodworker, but it is a match her family is unlikely to accept.
The pairing is further doomed when Oguebie, one of Onaedo’s rebuffed suitors, arranges to have a group of men, including Onaedo’s beau, leave for a job near the coast.
As the brother of the local ruler, Oguebie thinks he is above the rest of the community. He is restless and greedy, and when given a chance to line his pockets by dealing with some Portuguese traders, he agrees to the opportunity. At first he is unaware that the white men are engaged in the slave trade, but even when he discovers what they are up to, he swallows any compunction and goes ahead with the transaction. Eventually, Onaedo is swept up in one of the raids, and she is shipped off to a sugar plantation off the coast of West Africa.
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This is a tale of dashed hopes and bitter heartbreak. Onaedo is a resilient character, but the circumstances she has to cope with are difficult to read about.
Achebe’s choice of story is fine, but her storytelling skills are a work in progress. Her book-ending of the central tale with a story about a 21st-century woman seeking her roots is extraneous.
And her decision to tell the main story from multiple points of view – slave traders and slave owners as well as various members of Onaedo’s family – dissipates the narrative punch. On the other hand, it does flesh out the justifications people use when acting in an unprincipled way. Again, this isn’t savory stuff, but it is certainly worth considering.
“Onaedo” has some other strong selling points. It is fascinating in its descriptions of the daily life, customs, and relations in a 16th century West African village.
The heroine’s tenacious and pragmatic spirit may serve as a beacon of courage even to readers today.
Contact Barbara Lloyd McMichael at firstname.lastname@example.org .