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Sunday, January 3, 2010


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?


Dawn said...

Ah, your review brings back memories that I had long forgotten about a book I enjoyed so long ago!

Anonymous said...

Um, yes. And I liked the frost ferns, too.

One of my friends was a "missionary kid" and found the book true, powerful, and hard to read, as it brought sharp memories to the fore. Kingsolver lived briefly in Africa when she was a little girl. I've often wondered what images from that time informed her writing.

P. J. Grath said...

Keeping a reading list and writing about some of the books I read helps me to remember them better, Dawn. Glad you liked the review.

Gerry, so many books about Africa are hard to read, the truths so often brutal. Without the story of Anatole and Leah, this one would have been much more difficult for me. The frost ferns were for you.

dmarks said...

Thanks for explaining. I'd heard the title, but had wondered what it was.

A "missionary" novel that I first think of is Paul Theroux's "Mosquito Coast". That one's rather weird.

P. J. Grath said...

I didn't really explain the title. It comes from the complexity of the native language of the villagers, in which one word that sounds the same to American ears can mean many different things, depending on how it's said. The preacher father also has some nasty encounters with the poisonwood tree as he blunders about trying to garden American-style.

Paul Theroux has written more fiction than nonfiction, but the only one of his novels I've read was MY SECRET HISTORY. I've read at least five of his travel novels. Will have to try MOSQUITO COAST, dmarks. You're the second person who's mentioned it in connection with THE POISONWOOD BIBLE themes.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Thank you for your review. The part of the book that resonates for me most often as a middle school teacher in an independent school is the "election". I struggle with how democratic I truly want to be some days. Ten years after reading the voices of that book will still come back to me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say I hated this book. I find Kingsolver to lack nuance and this book was guilty of that bigtime. It was all, white man=bad, African=good. She condemned the father from the start and gave him not an ounce of subtlety or sympathy, and it's hard to slog through a book when a primary character is so two-dimensional.


P. J. Grath said...

Anne, I can appreciate your struggles with democracy in the classroom, having taught college courses, subbed in middle school and high school and tutored grade school through high school. Part of the problem with exporting American-style democracy around the world, it seems, is that we all too often see it very narrowly--just a question of voting. In this book the abstraction of the vote contrasted with the old-style method of working toward consensus, which is, when you think about it, a very democratic process.

Julie, I understand what you are saying about the preacher father, and this was my big objection to the book before I read it. The author does give background to explaining the demons that drive the man, but why do you suppose she didn't give him a voice, along with his wife and daughters? I guess I don't see the chasm as between white and black so much as between money/power and its lack. There is NO way to defend Leopold of Belgium, for instance. But I do sympathize with your position on the book.

Today a friend recommended a book to my husband and me, and David howled in protest. He hates it when people recommend books, because "What if I hate it?" Joe and I agreed that people often disagree over books. One of my closest friends and I disagree as often as we agree on which books we love and which ones we can't stand. It's strange but interesting, and we never lack for conversation.

Thank you, Anne and Julie, for visiting and commenting.

Anonymous said...

I love your ice fern photographs. They are really beautiful. I haven't seen ice patterns on windows since I was a child.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Jessica. These are the windows on our front porch, which is completely unheated and uninsulated. Spring, summer and fall it is an extension of our living space, but in winter it is only a barrier against the west winds that would otherwise be directly battering the rest of the house. Every time I see the frost ferns, I remember those of my childhood, too.

The Vine Goddess said...

I read this in a book club I belonged to at work when it first came out and loved the book. What was significant for me is that when I was attending Northport Schools in the 1960s we had a student for a couple years whose family -- originally from Northport I believe and with relatives still in Northport -- was sent here to live with family because of the political situations in the Congo. And one of the missionaries killed during that time in the Congo was a Northport native. The book reminded me of that time and gave me perspective on how hard each day must have been for that girl, not knowing what might be happening to her family. And since my father-in-law was a minister, I've learned a little about the difference between calling and career over the years.

P. J. Grath said...

Vine Goddess, I feel sure I must know you but can't quite figure out who you are. As for a missionary from Northport in the Sixties, I know that at least one member of the Thomas family went overseas as a missionary but don't remember more than that. Do you think that Reverend Price had a calling? He certainly didn't seem to approach missionary work as a career, but did he have a "true" calling? I'm not sure he did. But my perspective is from the outside looking in. and others may (more certainly would) see the field differently.

P. J. Grath said...

Only in my dreams, unfortunately! Sounds like a terrific opportunity. I hope I'll hear about it afterward from someone to find out how it went.