The Poisonwood Bible

Steve said the other day that I am voracious reader. That is both true and not true. I think I do read every day, but it takes me a very long time to read. He explained that he meant I always have a book going; I may not read two or three books at once, as he does, but I’m always reading something. If that is voracious, then I agree. However, if a voracious reader greedily devours books, then I can’t agree. I savor them. I like to roll their words around on my tongue and taste them.

I have just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I cannot tell you how long I’ve been reading it. It seems like months. But this is not a book that you can read casually. You need to devote what time you have to it. Finally, you need to devote time you don’t have to it. I asked Steve if he could remember reading a book and thinking it was destined to be a Classic. By that, I mean we will be studying it in schools. It will survive the ages as an important work of literature. It will be To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby-Dick, or, perhaps most appropriately, Heart of Darkness, for it is to that last which it owes the most. I must admit that I don’t often reach the conclusion while I’m reading a contemporary novel that it will reach the status of the great novels of the past and become a part of the fabric of our culture. I know this novel will. It is deep and rich. It is complex. I think every American should read it. Since it was published in 1998, it may take some time before the educational establishment recognizes this book for what it is, but mark my words: this book will be required reading for your children, if it isn’t for you.

The back-of-the-book jacket blurb is not such a bad place to start:

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find out that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Taking its place alongside the classic words of postcolonial literature, this ambitious novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

Kingsolver has posted an excerpt on her website. It will give you a flavor for the rich poetry of her prose. So many sentences in this book I read several times in order to truly taste them, let them roll over my tongue. The descriptions are lavish: I had no trouble picturing the settings, from the village of Kilanga, to Kinshasa; from the Equatorial Hotel in the French Congo to Sanderling Island, Georgia.

Nathan leads his family from Bethlehem, Georgia (which I had NO trouble picturing since I used to live maybe five miles from Bethlehem in Winder) to the Belgian Congo, which became Zaire from 1971-1997. If I had one problem with the book, it was the simple reference to Bethlehem High School. It bothered me for a time until I realized why Kingsolver invented the school. As far as I know, such a school never existed. I student-taught at the only high school in Barrow County at the time, Winder-Barrow High School, in 1996-1997. Since that time, another high school has been built. I did some research, and I cannot determine if there was a Bethlehem High School in the late 1950s. There doesn’t seem to be any information to indicate that there was. However, I understand why Kingsolver invented one. Not to invent Bethlehem High School would have distracted her readers unfamiliar with Barrow County, Georgia. I am sure it isn’t that she didn’t do her research — that she plainly does. I think she is judicious about which details are important, and explaining that the girls went to Winder-Barrow High School and why instead of a fictional Bethlehem High School would have taken up space on a trifle.

Of the novel, Kingsolver said:

England has a strong tradition of postcolonial literature but here in the U.S., we can hardly even say the word “postcolonial.” We like to think we’re the good guys. So we persist in our denial, and live with a legacy of exploitation and racial arrogance that continues to tear people apart, in a million large and small ways.

This story, Kingsolver maintains, is an allegory. I need to file that away for the next time my students ask me if writers mean to use symbolism or we’re just inventing stuff the writer didn’t intend. Nathan Price and his daughters each represent different responses to America’s role in raping the Congo. Kingsolver says that Nathan represents the “historical attitude”:

The Prices carry into Africa a whole collection of beliefs about religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture, just as industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world in an extremely arrogant way, very certain of being right (even to the point of destroying local ideas, religion and leadership), even when it turns out-as it does in this novel-that those attitudes are useless, offensive or inapplicable. I knew most of my readers would feel unsympathetic to that arrogance. We didn’t make the awful decisions our government imposed on Africa. We didn’t call for the assassination of Lumumba; we hardly even knew about it. We just inherited these decisions, and now have to reconcile them with our sense of who we are. We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price. Male or female, we are not like him. That is what I wanted to write about. We got pulled into this mess but we don’t identify with that arrogant voice. It’s not his story. It’s ours.

Each of the female characters that tell the story represent different reactions or responses to America’s involvement in the Congo’s struggles for independence:

The four sisters and Orleanna represent five separate philosophical positions, not just in their family but also in my political examination of the world. This novel is asking, basically, “What did we do to Africa, and how do we feel about it?” It’s a huge question. I’d be insulting my readers to offer only one answer. There are a hundred different answers along a continuum, with absolute paralyzing guilt on the one end and “What, me worry? I didn’t do it!” on the other end. Orleanna is the paralyzed one here, and Rachel is “What, me worry?” Leah, Adah, and Ruth May take other positions in between, having to do with social activism, empirical analysis, and spirituality, respectively.

It is in the climactic moment when Price blood is shed that each character takes her role. Rachel is maddening in her refusal to be changed by all that she has seen, but she still has some keen insights to offer. Her name means “ewe,” and like so many of the sheep in America, she denies we are complicit in any wrongdoing. Leah is outraged upon awakening to the injustices of the world and wants to change them. Adah is the scientist, examining the evidence with an empirical eye, if not an entirely cold eye. Orleanna begs forgiveness — before she was paralyzed to stop — to question Nathan or simply to leave him, ensuring her children’s safety. She is unable to act until it is “too late.” Ruth May is unwavering in her faith in her father and his religion: “Whither thou goest, I will go” — just like the biblical Ruth for which she is named.

Just like Orleanna, I dreaded the climactic death that would set the Prices’ feet in motion upon their particular paths. It was as inevitable as the political events it paralleled. Now, like Orleanna, I find myself wanting forgiveness.

The Bean Trees, the last book by Kingsolver which I read and reviewed, was also political. Kingsolver wants us to think and challenge ourselves and our government.

This story came from passion, culpability, anger and a long-term fascination with Africa, and my belief that what happened to the Congo is one of the most important political parables of our century. I’ve been thinking about this story for as long as I’ve had eyes and a heart. I live in a countery [sic] that has done awful things, all over the world, in my name. You can’t miss that. I didn’t make those decisions, but I have benefited from them materially. I live in a society that grew prosperous from exploiting others.

Kingsolver said she hoped the book would make her readers laugh a little at times, cry at others. I did this and more. It really made me think. This novel is so dense I cannot possibly compress it for you. You just need to read it.

Note: Kingsolver quotes were all taken from her website.

2 thoughts on “The Poisonwood Bible

  1. Yay! Another Dana book review! I can't tell you how much I enjoy it when you review a book. And, in most cases, I haven't read the book, so it inspires new additions to my reading list. (I bought and read Susan Vreeland's book, after being so enticed by your thoughts on it.) This is another I will be reading in the near future.

  2. Had a thought a moment ago … got distracted by Coldplay on the radio.blog … Oh! I saw Poisonwood Bible at Goodwill quite some time ago and thought about picking it up. Looks like I'll try to snag it somewhere. On another note, you're reading Sherlock Holmes, I see over there. Go on Amazon and check out The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin. LMK if you're interested. 🙂

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