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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible


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…

 

12 comments:

Ms Sparrow said...

Wow, great review. I always wondered where "Poisonwood" came from. Your description reminded me of the 1991 film "At Play in the Fields of the Lord". I think I want to see that one again.

NCmountainwoman said...

This is my favorite Kingsolver book! I had the opportunity to hear her in Asheville and took it with me just in case. And she signed it for me.

Bekkieann said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I have loved Barbara Kingsolver ever since reading "The Bean Trees" years ago. Your review is right on target.

EcoRover said...

It's a tough read, emotionally, but Kingsolver is such a master story teller. Hard to think of the Congo War without this tune by Warren Zevon popping into my head: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhRRWwH3Fro

Linda said...

Wonderful review! Thank you so much for sharing.

Anvilcloud said...

I guess this is her best known work. I preferred one called Prodigal Summer, and there were a few set in AZ that I liked but I forget their names.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Nice to see you recognize one of my all time favourite authors. This book was a difficult, dense read. I should re-read it, and probably won't. I now think of Loemoemba every January 17th. I still have to read Flight behavior, and I missed an early non fition wotk about an Arizona miners' strike. So little time, so much to read!

Jo's World said...

I just wrote a brilliant comment comparing Poisonwood Bible to Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux but some Google creature ate it up.

If you haven't read Mosquito Coast it is somewhat similar to PB substituting Pride and ability with religion. A story of a man who takes his wife and children to Honduras to create a more perfect life for them, giving up all they have in the US.

A good movie too with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. Now we will see if this one flys,

Jo in Minniesnowda

Michelle said...

I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver. I read this book many years ago and loved it. May have to read it again. I also have to say that I enjoyed her book, Prodigal Summer

Retired English Teacher said...

I've had this book on the shelf for years and never have read it. I'm still not sure I will, but I did enjoy reading your review.

A Lady's Life said...

Wow sounds very intriguing!!!

amanda | wildly simple said...

Glad you steered me here..
I have been deeply engrossed in this book, 400 some pages into it. It's all I can do to get done all the other things that need to be done - I just want to read! This week has been allowing me enough time for my liking.
Nathan Price is appalling, and so is the idea of anyone going in and disrupting the way the native Congolese tribes were living happily for centuries, out of the arrogance of conforming them.. or out of greed & evil, in robbing & harming them.
You summed up what I've read so far very well.
The viewpoint (when she jumps back in time) from a young mother with three children so close in age in that time, was profound in my eyes. It's so easy to think she was a fool to stand by & go along with him, a lunatic, and a mean one at that. But that judgement layer in me was cracked in how she reminded me of what it's like when you are raising infants - multiples - getting by day by day. Interesting, all if it.

I just found Kingsolver this summer.. starting with Prodigal Summer which was recommended to me as something I'd like, and I did!
I skimmed parts of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but not being a novel, I haven't actually dived right into that one. Next I read the Bean Trees. And now the Poisonwood Bible. I'm amazed at the ground & topics she covers - throughout geography & humanity.

Also - what really strikes me as brilliant, is when Kingsolver narrates as Adah. Those are the strangest of chapters, and harder to follow.. but WOW - what a complex mind to come up with them.