The Omnivorous Reader

Linking Different Worlds

Orr and Sparks connect North Carolina and Africa

By D.G. Martin

Two important new novels are set in North Carolina and in Africa. It is an amazing coincidence because the books’ authors live in two different literary worlds.

The first new, Africa-connected book is N.C. State professor Elaine Neil Orr’s Swimming Between Worlds.  She is a highly praised author of literary fiction.

The second is New Bern — based Nicholas Sparks’ latest, Every Breath, which is being released this month. Sparks’ 20 novels have been regulars on The New York Times best-seller lists, often at No. 1, making him one of the world’s most successful writers of what some call commercial fiction.

What is the difference between literary and commercial fiction? According to Writer’s Digest, “There aren’t any hard and fast definitions for one or the other, but there are some basic differences, and those differences affect how the book is read, packaged, and marketed. Literary fiction is usually more concerned with style and characterization than commercial fiction. Literary fiction is also usually paced more slowly than commercial fiction. Literary fiction usually centers around a timeless, complex theme, and rarely has a pat (or happy) ending. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, is faster paced, with a stronger plot line (more events, higher stakes, more dangerous situations).”

Although both Orr and Sparks would argue that their work cannot be neatly packaged in either genre, the literary/commercial distinction helps prepare readers for the authors’ different styles.

In these two books, both authors tell compelling stories and feature interesting and complex characters.

Orr’s Swimming Between Worlds raises the question of whether there is a connection between the 1950s Nigerian movement for independence and the civil rights movement in Winston-Salem.

Orr grew up as the child of American missionaries in Nigeria. Her experiences gave a beautiful and true spirit to her first novel, A Different Sun, about pre-Civil War Southern missionaries going to black Africa to save souls.

Instead of slaveholding Southerners preaching to Nigerian blacks, the new book contrasts the cultural segregation of 1950s Winston-Salem with the situation in Nigeria. Although Nigerians at that time were coming to a successful end of their struggle for independence from Great Britain, they were still mired in the vestiges of colonial oppression.

Set in these circumstances is a coming-of-age story and a love story. These themes are complicated, and enriched, by the overlay of Nigerian struggles and the civil rights protests in Winston-Salem.

The main male character, Tacker Hart, had been a star high school football player who earned an architectural degree at N.C. State. He was selected for a plum assignment to work in Nigeria on prototype designs for new schools.

Working in Nigeria, this typical Southern white male becomes so captivated by Nigerian culture, religion and ambience that his white supervisors fire him for being “too native” and send him home. Back in Winston-Salem the discouraged and depressed Tacker takes a job in his father’s grocery.

The female lead character, Kate Monroe, is the daughter of a Salem College history professor. Her parents are dead, and after graduating from Agnes Scott College, she leaves Atlanta and her longtime boyfriend, James, to return to Winston-Salem and live in the family home where she grew up. She still, however, has feelings for James, an ambitious young doctor.

How Tacker wins Kate from James is the love story that forms the core of this book. But there are complications created by a young African-American college student who is taking time off to help with family in Winston-Salem. Tacker and Kate first meet Gaines on the same day. After Gaines buys a bottle of milk at the Hart grocery store, white thugs attack him for being in the wrong place (a white neighborhood) at the wrong time. Later on the same day, Kate spots an African-American man holding a bottle of milk, walking by her home in an upper-class white neighborhood. She thinks he probably stole the milk. She is terrified, and immediately locks her doors and windows. She shakes with worry about the danger of this young black man walking through her neighborhood. The young man is, of course, Gaines.

It turns out that Gaines is the nephew of Tacker’s beloved family maid. Tacker and his father hire Gaines to work in the grocery store, and he becomes a model employee.

But Gaines has a secret agenda. He is working with the group of outsiders to organize protest movements at lunch counters in downtown retail stores.

Gaines sets out to entice Tacker to help with the protests, first, only to allow the store to be used at night for a meeting place. Then, over time, Tacker is led to participate in the sit-ins.

In Nigeria, Tacker had found his black colleagues and friends to be just as smart, interesting, and as talented as he was. He found them to be his equals.

Back in Winston-Salem, he has at first slipped back into a comfort level with the segregated and oppressive culture in which he grew up. His protest activities with Gaines put his relationships with his family, Kate and possible employment at an architectural firm at risk.

Tacker’s effort to accommodate his growing participation in the civil rights movement with his heritage of segregation leads to the book’s dramatic, tragic and totally surprising ending.

The African connection in Nicholas Sparks’ new book is Tru Walls, a white safari guide from Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. In 1990, the 42-year-old Tru comes to Sunset Beach to meet his biological father. It is his first visit to the United States. On the beach he meets Hope Anderson, a 36-year-old nurse from Raleigh. She is in a long-term relationship with Josh, a self-centered orthopedic surgeon. Nevertheless, she and Tru immediately fall into a deeply passionate love affair.

How Hope resolves her competing feelings for Tru and Josh is the thread that guides the book to a poignant conclusion 24 years later at another North Carolina beach.

In the meantime readers learn from Tru’s experiences about the lives of white farm families and the competing claims of the overwhelming black majority in Zimbabwe. Sparks’ descriptions of wildlife and the safari experience evoke memories of Ernest Hemingway’s African short stories.

Sparks’ publishers say that Every Breath is in the spirit of The Notebook. In both books, the lovers’ early encounters involve fiery and youthful passion. Sparks brings them together again years later as older, even infirm, people still deeply in love.

PBS’s Great American Read has named The Notebook one of America’s 100 best-loved novels. It’s the only book set in North Carolina to make the list. On Oct. 23, PBS will announce the one book selected as America’s best-loved novel.

Voting will be open until Oct. 18. You may register your votes for The Notebook and for other books on the list. Go to www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/vote/. For a list of all 100 books, go to www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/books/#/.

As part of its participation in The Great American Read during the first two weeks in October, UNC-TV will air special “North Carolina Bookwatch” interviews with Sparks about The Notebook and Every Breath. PS

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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