Reading Guides

A Different Sun
Elaine Neil Orr
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In 1853, twenty–year–old Emma Bowman arrives in West Africa, as the continent’s first white woman missionary. She has followed her new husband, Henry, a worldly but troubled man who has a sinful past. Here, Emma will either survive a trial by fire—or succumb to a crisis of faith. Among the Yoruba people, Emma learns to recognize the grim reminders of the brutal slave trade. And as her husband battles fever, his gift of a writing box with its diary becomes Emma’s solace. A tale of social and spiritual awakening, and a meditation on faith, desire, and freedom, A Different Sun is an epic story of a profoundly life–changing journey and two complicated, fascinating souls.


Elaine Neil Orr is a professor of English at North Carolina State University where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She is also on the faculty of the brief–residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville. She has previously published a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life. This is her first novel. She lives in Raleigh, NC.


  1. “In her mind, Emma had ascended to a place of significance in the family. She was the smarter daughter and the chosen one.” How does Emma perceive herself as different from her sister, Catherine? Why does she sense she was meant to do something different? Have you ever felt “called” to take a different path than those around you?

  2. Discuss how Emma describes Africa. What kind of language does she use and what comparisons does she make? How is Africa a character in the novel?

  3. Have you ever been a stranger in a foreign place? How did you cope with being different from everyone around you? How did you adapt or grow over time?

  4. Why does Emma cherish her writing box and journal? What do you think writing symbolizes to her?

  5. Discuss Emma’s relationship with Uncle Eli. Why is Uncle Eli being Yoruba so significant to Emma’s journey?

  6. What is Emma’s first impression of Jacob? Do you believe Emma’s feelings for Jacob amounted to emotional adultery? How does she compare the two men, especially when Henry becomes ill with delusions?

  7. Henry and Emma’s struggle with their marriage is a main conflict in the story. How is her marriage different from what Emma expects? Do you think Emma falls out of love with Henry? Why or why not?

  8. How do both Jacob and Henry let their troubled pasts define them? How do they try to overcome them? Do either of them succeed?

  9. Although the novel is written in third person from Emma’s point of view, many chapters take on the Jacob or Henry’s viewpoints. How do their stories give you more insight into Emma’s own journey?

  10. Emma writes in her journal, “It may be that we follow God only by losing our way.” Describe the challenges Emma faces as a missionary in Africa. How do each of these test her faith in God? When does she question her faith the most?

  11. How is the role of women in society similar in both Georgia and Africa? How is it different? Describe Emma’s relationship with each of these characters: Mittie Ann, the African king’s wives, Tela, the Iyalode?

  12. What are some of the successes of Henry and Emma’s mission?

  13. Emma admits to her husband near the end of the novel, “I am not as advanced in charity as I had thought.” She sees this as a spiritual limitation. How do you think Emma grows as a person throughout her story, if at all?

  14. How would Emma’s story be different today? What same struggles would she encounter? What would be easier about being a missionary in modern times? How would her role as a woman and reverend’s wife change?

  15. At the end of the novel, Emma and Henry begin their journey home to America, but plan on returning to Africa. What do you think the future holds for them? If you were the author of the story, how would you write the sequel?