The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is a book  I have been meaning to read for a long time. As soon as I finished it a few days ago, I immediately returned to the first page and began reading again.  First published in 1998, I denied myself the immense pleasure of this novel far too long; for Barbara Kingsolver is the best contemporary novelist I have read in a while.

Kingsolver chooses the perfect way to narrate the story of an evangelical Baptist missionary and his family who go to the Congo in 1960 during the tumultuous period of independence from Belgium. Chapters alternate among the mother Orealanna and her daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May telling the story.  The Congo will affect the five in strikingly different ways that illuminate the complex relations among the family with the Congo, with religion, and with the crazed missionary zeal of the father Nathan Price. Kingsolver’s choice of names is always significant. The mother and girls, and ultimately the father, pay a price for their misguided mission to Christianize the Congolese, and their personal stories, reflect the tragedy of colonialism and the culpability of the United States and Belgium in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. But the politics form the backdrop of the saga of the Price family; each in turn, describe what the awful price was they paid for being accomplices with their father’s mission to presumably save Africa from heathenism. Watch for the number of times the narrators use the word price.

There are many reasons why this book stands out in recent American literature, not least of which, is the mastery with which Kingsolver creates the characters of the five narrators through their distinctive voices.  The viewpoints of the girls generate the powerful impact of the novel.  A great book has an inevitability about it in which all the aspects of fiction work so well together that to conceivably have written it differently would have diminished the effect. The dark continent as seen through four daughters and their mother who have been uprooted from Bethlehem, Georgia, and their subsequent exodus from the Congo in the wake of  tragedy carries the most powerful emotional force possible and reveals the horrific damage European colonization visited upon foreigners and Africans alike. Although this is a story of death, disease, poverty, hunger, and political treachery; the voices of the three teenage sisters and the five-year old Ruth May often sound humorous notes as they observe their absurd and precarious situation plopped down in a  jungle village, the only whites except for visits of the pilot Eeben Axelroot who flies in supplies. Many authors can weave a good plot nowadays; the great writer also demonstrates playfulness of language that continually delights. Adah’s palindromes and Rachel’s hilarious malapropisms add depth and zest to their personalities. Kingsolver captures the tone of the youngest child Ruth May, and it is her voice that brings the novel to a beautiful conclusion in the final chapter.  Not only does Kingsolver achieve wonders in creation of character but also in the description of the setting. I feel, smell, see, taste, and touch that Congo. It oozes with the breath and life of plants, animals, the river, the mud, the colorful clothes of the Congolese, and the green mamba snake slithering in the dust–an image of a fallen Garden of Eden six centuries after the first Portuguese paddled up the Congo River.

Kingsolver deftly ties Biblical references and dramatic scenes together, suggesting in the juxtaposition of characters and in the interactions of blacks and whites, the novel’s main themes. I carry away from my two readings of this book over the span of two weeks the travail of sorrow, an appreciation that the illusions we carry can both harm and redeem and that the truths we hold dear are culturally determined.  Everything about this book shouts excellence–theme, plot, character, language and organization–so that I urge you to read it and find out why the Bible is called poisonwood.

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