Themes in Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road

Redemption Road by Ema Shaw discusses themes such as resilience, loss and grief, justice, post-war trauma, redemption, corruption,

Themes in Redemption Road
Themes in Redemption Road

Redemption Road by Elma Shaw discusses themes such as resilience, loss and grief, justice, post-war trauma, redemption, corruption, and dehumanisation of war. These themes are integral to the overall development of Elma Shaw’s novel.

In this blog post, we are going to discuss some of the themes in Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road.

Theme of Resilience

The theme of resilience is one of the dominant themes in Redemption Road. It manifests in a number of ways in the novel. One manifestation is evident in Bendu’s unwavering commitment to stay with her sick grandmother, Catherine May Tyler, during the chaos of the war. She refuses to leave her grandmother’s side even when she is urged to do so for her own safety.


Bendu’s resilience is further reinforced by her decision to help war-affected women through her NGO, Peace in Practice. She is beset with her own traumas too but that does not stop her from helping other survivors of the war. Even when she has to struggle to get funds for her humanitarian efforts, she remains committed to her work and maintains a positive outlook. She actively engages in counselling sessions, shares her own experiences, and offers support and guidance to others facing difficulties.

Bendu demonstrates the theme of resilience yet again through her refusal to drop charges against Varney, even after undergoing a near-death experience in the hands of Varney at a deserted beach, and she is advised to do so for her own sake. She remains steadfast in her pursuit of what she believes is right, come what may.

Similarly, resilience is portrayed through the character of Tenneh. Her revelation of her HIV-positive status depicts her resilience in confronting stigma and fear. Despite her concerns about rejection and harm, Tenneh bravely shares her story and expresses a desire to help others by raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. Her willingness to confront challenges head-on and seek support from her community reflects a resilient spirit that refuses to be defined by circumstances.

Theme of Loss and Grief

The theme of loss and grief permeates Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road. The author projects how some of the characters grapple with their losses. Rosetta is one character in the text who grapples with the loss of a loved one. She is embittered that her husband was murdered on tribal grounds. Her bitterness no doubt says something about the fact that she is still mourning the loss of her husband, which explains why she hasn’t let go of the hate she harbours against the killers of her husband.

Redemption Road
Redemption Road by Elma Shaw

The theme of loss and grief is also demonstrated through the character of Eva Lewis who lost her son, Benji, to the 1980 coup d’etat. It is clearly shown in the novel she hasn’t gotten over the loss of her child, which is why she goes to his grave every April to commemorate the death of her son. Bendu, Calvin, Eva, and Siatta all mourn Benji in their different ways.

The main character, Bendu, is not left out of this web of loss. She still mourns the death of her fiancée, Jonah, who suddenly died some months before their wedding. This loss complicates her love life, as she can’t seem to entertain the thoughts of being in a serious romantic relationship with another man.

For what seems a fleeting moment in the novel, Bendu mourns the fate of her daughter, whom she only knows as “Baby Girl,” and had abandoned at the Duluma camp several years back. Even as the search for her daughter intensifies, this grief lingers. She is particularly worried about what has become of her daughter; whether she is dead or still alive.

Several other characters suffered loss one way or the other. Ma Musu’s husband was killed by soldiers; her sons were taken away; and her sister died of Cholera. The whole gamut of loss extends to Commander Cobra, who lost his both parents as a child to motor accident.

Besides, the novel begins with the commemoration of Granny May’s death. Of all the family and friends present at the burial ceremony, Bendu is the most affected because only she is privy to how horrible her grandmother’s death was. The others have not the least idea, except that they know that Granny May’s body wasn’t found, which is why they have to represent it with precious items that could as well do for it. There is a lingering sense of loss and grief all through the first chapter of the novel.

Theme of Justice

Redemption Road explores the concept of justice and the lack thereof in society. Starting with Varney, he is determined to confront societal injustices and initiates meaningful action. He laments the lack of justice in a society where peace is prioritised over equity. He believes that there is an inherent connection between justice and lasting peace. Justice is needed to achieve true peace. It is, however, ironic that the same Varney would object to Bendu’s pursuit of justice.

The theme of justice also manifests in Bendu’s determination to prosecute Commander Cobra for his war crimes, especially in the face of recurring nightmares where the guy she seeks to prosecute is the villain. This drives much of the narrative.

Besides, Bendu’s perception of justice is different from Calvin’s or Varney’s. Bendu, in her pursuit of justice against Varney, believes in involving the police and following proper legal channels. She adheres to due process and holds onto the hope that the authorities will bring Varney to justice. But Calvin’s approach to justice is very different. Contrary to Bendu’s insistence on legal recourse, he has inclination towards vigilante justice which allows him to handle matters himself and take laws into his hands. As for Varney, his own idea of justice in the novel involves the bribing of judges to get his way and infiltrating the system with people that will do his bidding.

Another angle to the theme of justice is that it is at first Bendu’s way of seeking closure from her past trauma. She believes that by holding Commander Cobra accountable for his heinous crimes during the war and the role he played in the ruination of her life, she will get redemption. However, after the death of Commander Cobra, she begins to regret not forgiving him, instead of pressing charges against him during his lifetime.

Themes in Redemption Road
Themes in Redemption Road

Theme of Corruption

Corruption is one of the central themes in Redemption Road. In the text, we witness the pervasive corruption in the justice system. Judge Dagoseh epitomises this corruption. He accepts bribes from Moses Varney in order to do his bidding and provide him with immunity from the law. Justice now becomes more of he who pays the piper dictates the tune. In other words, Dagoseh is used to perpetuate a system that oppresses the people.

Varney’s informants placed within the police system also add to the overriding corruption in the text. They not only subvert the system but also alter the course of justice. A good example of this is when he receives a call from one of his comrades within the system that he is being followed. This, and the subsequent call from his boss, simply identified as Chief, allow him to escape being arrested.

Theme of Post-War Trauma

The theme of post-war trauma is one of the recurring themes in Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road. The novel shows the lasting impact of war trauma on individuals and communities. It portrays how survivors grapple with grief, guilt, and psychological distress long after the war has ended.

Tenneh, Rosetta, Josephine, Bendu, and perhaps, Agnes all grapple with the aftermath of war, one way or the other. They all have to contend with painful memories. For Tenneh, it is hatred towards her mother who pushed her into the hands of soldiers who assault and sexually molested her. Rosetta still harbours hatred and resentment towards the tribal bigots who killed her husband. For Bendu, it’s her frequent nightmares about her horrible experiences in Duluma camp. She also drowns in an endless pool of grief and guilt. Grief for the ones she has lost, and guilt for the death of Granny May, the disappearance of Cousin Orlando, and the abandonment of Bébé Geh.

While the author does not explicitly mention anything about Agnes’ war experience or the consequent trauma, her commitment to PIP and care for children most likely atone for her sins during the war, and might as well portray things she endured during the war.

Even Moses Varney is troubled by his past. He changes his name. But the more he runs from his past, the more his present actions bring him closer to it. He gets high on hard drugs to perform some of his heinous acts in the present, take for example, his kidnap of Bendu.

Theme of Redemption

Redemption is the central theme in Elma Shaw’s Redemption Road. This is evident in the title of the book and the concept the book represents. The book narrates the journey of some fictional post-war Liberian characters from a state of post-war trauma and guilt to one of forgiveness, healing and renewal.

Each war-affected character wants a fresh start. Moses Varney’s journey in the novel is characterised by his desire for redemption and a fresh start, which explains his change of name from “Commander Cobra” to “Moses Varney.” His aspirations for a new life and advocacy for the oppressed reflect a desire for personal and societal transformation.

Bendu also helps the survivors of the war take the redemptive path with the counselling sessions organised by her PIP, which provide a space for them to confront their trauma. The whole idea of victims reading a letter, addressed to people who have betrayed them and/or inflicted them with violence during the war, helps them talk about their hurts from the war. In addition to this, Agnes’s idea of the Truth Project, where both victims and perpetrators share their experiences, helps characters find closure and move forward from past traumas. It also spells the possibility of redemption for both victims and perpetrators.

Among other things, Bendu also wants redemption from her past. Her founding of PIP is one step towards atoning for some of the things she did during the war. Then, her press of charges against Varney is another way she thinks she can find closure from her past. She wants Varney to be held for his past actions. However, after the latter was murdered, she regrets not forgiving him while he was alive instead. In her redemption journey, she comes to terms with the fact that she is loved by her family members and that she has long been forgiven by those she believes she had wronged. She learns to forgive herself too. Her reunion with her long-abandoned daughter is the icing on the cake of her redemption.

By the end of Redemption Road, many of the characters emerge as better versions of themselves. They are able to forgive themselves for the things they did, and others who wronged them. They are free from the burden of their dark pasts, and get second chances to make amends and start anew.

Theme of Dehumanisation of War

Dehumanisation of war is one of the themes discussed in Redemption Road by Elma Shaw. It portrays the brutality of war, in respect to how people kill each other without a second thought; how they abandon people dear to them in bid to survive; among many other things.

Let’s take a good look at Commander Cobra for example. His gruesome killing of people exemplifies the brutal nature of war. He for one tested his weapon on two men and commanded the removal of their dead bodies without remorse. And from the following conversation between Bendu and Ma Musu, we realise that this was one out of several other instances, that random killings like this were a norm in Duluma camp and elsewhere. Commanders killed a lot of times under the pretext of discipline when their real intent was to exert control over their subordinates and others through fear and intimidation. In other words, they maintained their authority by killing people like flies at the whish of a broom.

Men were killed while women were raped and forced into marriages. There are other instances of dehumanisation of war in the novel. Bendu was forced into a marriage with Samson; Tenneh was raped; Ma Musu’s and Rosetta’s husbands were murdered.

Bendu describes better the extent of this dehumanisation when she alludes to some of the atrocities she witnessed during the war, while travelling with a group of people who were “trying to escape from the rebels who were going around looting and killing near the area” (p. 127). She narrates how fighters cut open a pregnant woman just to see whether she was carrying a boy or a girl. She also mentions how a child soldier, whom she describes as the most dangerous kind of fighter, had killed a woman in the name of wanting to help her get faster to the border.

These instances show the monsters men become during the war. They depict the callousness and total disregard for human life that often characterise wartime environments.

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