Aku-nna's father dies when she is thirteen-years-old. Her mother, Ma Blackie, is forced by economic circumstances to leave their close community of supportive relatives in Lagos, and move back to her village in Ibuza with Aku-nna and eleven-year-old Nna-nndo. Following tradition, Ma Blackie becomes the fourth wife of her deceased husband's brother, Okonkwo. Ma Blackie has some money set aside for Aku-nna to finish her schooling, and Okonkwo agrees, only because an educated girl will fetch a higher bride price.
A potential groom offers a bride price to the bride's family as compensation for the loss of a worker in the bride's family. Women are considered property in traditional villages, and cannot determine their own future. There is a tribal superstition that a girl will die in childbirth if her bride price is not paid. (Some of these brides are so young, undernourished, and with such narrow hips that this superstition unfortunately does come true far too often.)
Aku-nna is a fragile, intelligent girl who feels lonely in her new home. Her young teacher Chike is very kind and protective of her, and soon they fall in love. Chike wishes to marry her, but Okonkwo refuses. Because Chike is a descendent of slaves, it would bring shame on Okonkwo's family if Aku-nna married Chike.
In Nigeria, one tribe would kidnap people of another tribe and force them into slavery. Under colonial rule, the slaves were released but their descendents were considered inferior and not true members of the village. A caste system exists where a villager could not marry a descendent of a slave, no matter how educated or successful they were.
There is a conflict between traditional and modern ways when Aku-nna falls in love with Chike and wants to marry him. The book has some serious themes such as tradition, the caste system, feminism, and superstition. How important are community values and community support as opposed to individual values and free will? The story itself is very engaging, keeping my attention as I wondered if the tale of the two Nigerian lovers would have a happy ending.
Buchi Emecheta was born in Nigeria in 1944, and her father died when she was nine years old. She was engaged at age eleven, and married at age sixteen. She left her unhappy, violent marriage six years later. She earned a degree in Sociology in London, while working and raising her five children alone. The author's own experiences from her early life are obviously influencing her writing, and many of her books deal with feminine oppression and poverty.