A few months back I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behavior and really enjoyed it. In spite of her highly acclaimed and sometimes controversial writing she was new to me. So when I happened upon her bestselling book in the library, The Poisonwood Bible, I grabbed it….
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 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.
At first I didn’t think I would like it. The father is a uncaring zealot from the word go. On the outside the mother is a wimp who loyally follows her idiot of a husband to the entire families near destruction. On the inside she is naturally full of anger which finally leads to a dangerous choice. . The daughters are a seeming strange lot at first, very confusing and hard to follow. Then their role as victims and narrators brings the whole story into focus.The book follows the family as they try to bring their way of life, and their religion, to the village of Kilanga. They come carrying all the wrong things - seeds that cannot grow in the jungle, packages of birthday cake mix that will never become cakes, and a religion that puzzles and scares the villagers. Words have many meanings there, depending on how you say them. When Nathan talks about baptism, he is also saying ‘to terrify.’ To say ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala’ may mean ‘Jesus is poisonwood’, or he is divine. The villagers are also afraid of baptism as they don’t go into the river; too many of their children have been killed by crocodiles.
The arrogance of Western missionaries is hardly news, but Price's blinding pride makes for a story that's often comic despite its tragedy. After months of incomprehensible sermons, the minister fails to lure even one soul down to the river for baptism. The natives have no interest in rushing toward salvation in the next life by bathing with crocodiles in this one.
The history of the Belgian Congo’s unprepared lurch to independence is particularly tragic. The new “nation” becomes entangled thru no doing of its own in Cold War politics. The net result is a murdered freely elected leader and a Western propped up military dictator who ruled and robbed the country for over thirty years. I can see why this book has been a popular course selection in many colleges and discussion instigator in book clubs. If you have a strong heart and stomach I’d definitely recommend it…