As a young girl in Pearl, MS, Orleanna made what some might call the worst decision of her life: she married Nathan Price. Not that anyone asked her: "Even if anyone had been waiting for my opinion, I wouldn't have known how to form one" (3.Prologue.116). He was a man of God, and that was enough for her—and for her family and community.
What follows is a life of servitude. That whole love, honor, and obey part of their wedding vows? For Nathan and Orleanna, it works strictly one way, especially the obey part. Tethered down with four kids (after only three rolls in the hay; do the math on that one), Orleanna is miserable and exhausted for most of her life, and that's before getting dragged to the jungles of the Congo.
There's a reason Orleanna's daughters tell the story of the Congo: Orleanna's life seems to be on pause there. Well, it's on pause from the time she meets Nathan until Ruth May, her baby, dies as an indirect result of Nathan's actions. When this happens, she simply marches out of the Congo. And unlike Lot's wife, she doesn't look back: as Leah tells us, "Mother never once turned around to look over her shoulder" (5.1.2).
She spends the rest of her days in America, trying to rid herself of the memories of Nathan and the Congo. Adah observes, "She seemed determined to grow tragedy out of herself like a bad haircut" (5.3.3), and "She was an entire botanical garden waiting to happen" (5.3.13).
Notice that floral imagery? We all know what a green thumb Nathan was: his refusal to listen to Mama Tataba caused his plants to suffocate and drown. Hmm. That's sounds almost exactly what he did to Orleanna and his daughters. Without him, Orleanna can finally flourish. It's too bad that one of her daughters had to die before she realizes that.
Unlike Nathan, Orleanna seems changed by her experience. Once she's home, she's no longer the passive, obedient wife who lets herself get dragged off to the Congo. She works hard to benefit mankind, marching for Civil Rights and raising money for Amnesty International. Finally, people think she's a little bit nutso because she walks around without shoes.
But when you're one with nature, who needs them? Adah says, "My mother's sanest position is to wear only the necessary parts of the outfit and leave off the rest" (5.12.9). There's always going to be someone who thinks that if you don't want something that people have lived for centuries without (shoes, an iPhone, antiperspirant) you're a certified nutcase.