Sunday, January 3, 2010
Book Review: THE POISONWOOD BIBLE
What did I think of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible? Gerry from Torch Lake Views asked that question in a comment on my blog post from yesterday, and I thought I’d use it to begin a new post rather than simply posting a reply to the comment.
I avoided this book for over a decade. It came out in 1998, but despite all the people who told me how much they loved it, I was put off by what I thought was the book’s theme, but it turns out, I now realize, that the theme I’d projected onto the novel is only one strand of the story, and that strand by itself—impossible to separate it out except conceptually--is a complicated weaving of history, personal motivation, preconception, misunderstanding and love.
The wife and four daughters of a Christian missionary tell the story, in turns, from their different perspectives. The Price family from the American South, however, goes to the Congo without the full blessing of the Baptist hierarchy. For one thing, neither the preacher nor any of his family was prepared in advance to speak the language of their destination Congolese village. When it came to provisions for the year abroad, they “took all the wrong things,” as one of the daughters observes. Could anything have prepared them for the culture shock they would experience or the political realities that would turn their plans upside-down? Other missionaries they encountered fared differently, but the others had not only been differently prepared—they also brought to their task different expectations, greater resilience and adaptability.
Here’s the reason I took so long to read this book: Christian missionaries in Africa (or the South Seas or any of a number of places on the globe) are an easy target, easily written off as a group of narrow-minded, naive, meddling and unwitting supporters of Western money interests. The Reverend Price, from the outside, does match the stereotype. But just as Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses is an individual woman, not stereotypical ‘Woman,’ and therefore must be understood in her unique selfhood rather than as a mere gender representative, so Reverend Price is more than a cardboard cutout Christian missionary, and from his wife’s and daughters’ narratives the reader is gradually given pieces of the past that explain why this particular man has become as he appears in the Congo.
Beautifully written, the story captivated me from the start, but for perhaps the first two-fifths of the book I was impatient with the family’s distance from their African habitat. Necessity impinged on them daily, but psychologically, they remained for a long time, and seemed determined to remain, in a cultural bubble from which they looked out uncomprehendingly and with distaste on their neighbors. Impatiently, I would pull back from the story and look at the number of pages left to read, then with a sigh plunge back in, kept reading by the beauty of the language. But then something shifted (I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t cite page number of incident), and I began to feel that I was finally in the Congo with at least two of the four daughters, the twins Leah and Adah.
Rachel, the oldest girl, selfish and self-absorbed, will never let anything touch or change her, and the last-born is too young to reflect deeply on life, but the twins, in their very different ways, do let themselves be changed. The story (I was going to say “the author,” but it does not seem at all contrived) also lets in the very specific politics of the Congo at that moment in history, and two of the Congolese characters, Anatole, the teacher, and a younger boy in the village sent by Anatole to work as the Price family’s houseboy, step forward into the main action. Everything begins to open up like a jungle blossom. Social, political and economic issues, on the one hand, and personal narratives on the other, for the rest of the book, form a seamless reality in which individual decisions and actions come up against the steamroller of larger events but personalities stubbornly persist and flower, each in his or her own fashion.
A literary critic could have a field day with the metaphor of twinhood. I am not that analytical in my reading but found the twins’ narratives the most sympathetic. Leah is the one first recognized as gifted, while her “crippled” sister, thought to be brain damaged at birth, is almost relegated to the ranks of the retarded. Leah carries a burden of guilt for Adah’s handicaps, and Adah’s cargo is her continual effort to keep up with rather than being left behind by her sister, but it is not even obvious to strangers that they are twins, so different are the two girls. In the culture of the African village where they come to live, twin births are considered unlucky. Have Adah and Leah been unlucky to each other? To those around them? The legendary “twin bond” of wordless understanding only appears very late in the story, after the sisters have taken very different and unforeseeable roads in life. It was Adah’s poetic language that kept me reading in the early chapters, just as, later on, I read largely for Leah’s adoption of and immersion into African life.
Rachel’s trajectory was for me a glimpse into the Other—not a gender or ethnic but a spiritual Other. The youngest girl’s viewpoint is the confused and frequently mistaken view of the Innocent, her mistakes not so different from those of the older characters but certainly more forgivable. Finally, it is the mother’s retrospective view on the lives of all of them, beginning from the first page, that binds together the narratives of her children and the history of their father to make the story of a family.
The book might have ended before it did. It might have stopped without the final, brief chapters and still have brought readers to the shivering brink of reading satisfaction. The last pages push one over the edge. The fall, however, is more than willing. Plummeting into the abyss, one blesses the author of this tale.
Gerry, does that answer your question?