I deviated wildly from my planned itinerary since a bunch of people in my Around the World group were all reading The Poisonwood Bible together this week. As anyone who read about me being stuck in Australia already knows, I used this one as a reward for getting through Voss, and really enjoyed my reward. In the time I was reading it, I drove from Philly to Atlanta with a preschooler and a bulldog in tow. Now that I’m here, I’m helping out a friend with severe vertigo and a sheltie on chemo (who eats homemade food that is a little tricky to dish out, never mind make, when the world is spinning), so it’s not exactly a great reading week. The preschooler had 5 vaccinations the other day, and is either sick in relation to that or independent of it, but that is probably the only reason I have actually already finished this book. She’s sleeping much more than usual.
I loved the book, which was an Orange Prize shortlist choice in 1999. I read a lot of Kingsolver in the 90s and really enjoyed it, but hadn’t read anything she had written since. This was wonderful to read from page one, with chapters alternating between distinctive voices of 4 daughters and their mom narrating the experience of being dropped into the wilderness of the Belgian Congo of 1960 by a missionary patriarch with survivor guilt from his experience in the military in the South Pacific. You will grieve over what the “first world” has done to Africa as you follow the maturation of these women if you read this tale. Below are the Goodreads summary and my own review. I’m not doing food from here, other than eating some fruit, since the reports on manioc, the staple described in the book, are very unenticing! I’m now continuing my deviation through Africa, with a stop in Senegal. The book is short, so I should be back soon.
Goodreads: “Oprah Book Club® Selection, June 2000: As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they’re not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle,” says Leah, one of Nathan’s daughters. But of course it isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?
In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan’s intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor’s animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member’s fortune across a span of more than 30 years.
The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver’s most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price’s wife and daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate–teenage Rachel’s tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their “French congregations”; Nathan’s refusal to take his family home is a “tapestry of justice”). More problematic is Kingsolver’s tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.
Despite these weaknesses, Kingsolver’s fully realized, three-dimensional characters make The Poisonwood Bible compelling, especially in the first half, when Nathan Price is still at the center of the action. And in her treatment of Africa and the Africans she is at her best, exhibiting the acute perception, moral engagement, and lyrical prose that have made her previous novels so successful. –Alix Wilber
Essays on life, the world, and a snail transported to Tucson.
Although ”The Poisonwood Bible” takes place in the former Belgian Congo and begins in 1959 and ends in the 1990’s, Barbara Kingsolver’s powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption and the ”dark necessity” of history. The novel’s central character, a fiery evangelical missionary named Nathan Price, is part Roger Chillingworth, the coldhearted, judgmental villain of Hawthorne’s ”Scarlet Letter,” and part Ahab, Melville’s monomaniacal captain who risks his life and the lives of those closest to him in pursuit of his obsessive vision. Narrated in alternating chapters by Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, ”The Poisonwood Bible” begins with the arrival of the Price family in the remote Congolese village of Kilanga, a tiny cluster of mud houses devoid of all the ordinary amenities of life back home in ”the easy land of ice cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We Like Ike.” Moving fluently from one point of view to another, Ms. Kingsolver does a nimble job of delineating the Price girls’ responses to Africa and their father’s decision to uproot them.”
I loved this book and the different voices of the women in this missionary family whose lives are variously transformed by their time in the Belgian Congo. Tragic naivete is replaced by different types and levels of insight in the 5 women. Kingsolver clearly loves the country and its people.