Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover: A review

(Note: My review of The Poisonwood Bible was originally published on Goodreads on July 24, 2009.)

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am old enough to sort of remember the events that are at the center of the book.  I remember the newscasts at the time having stories about the declaration of the independence of the Congo and about the election of Patrice Lumumba.  Of course, all the newscasts gave the American "slant" to the story.  They were all about how this action impacted us.  Little notice was given to how it impacted the people who were actually living there.

That much I can remember.  I can also remember the announcement sometime later that Lumumba was dead and the turmoil that followed that death, but although I was old enough to hear the news, I was still too young and naive to have much understanding of what was going on.

Years later, when I was older and a little better able to understand, I remember the Church committee's investigation.  By that time, Watergate had happened and my cynicism about government had grown by leaps and bounds.  I was appalled by the findings of how our government had interfered in the affairs of a sovereign country and the chaos that we had helped to bring about in that part of the world.  But I wasn't really surprised.

It had been a long time since I had given much though to this issue - so many other atrocities had intervened in my consciousness - when I picked up this book.  I remember hearing about the book when it first came out and I knew that it had been greatly acclaimed, but somehow I had missed reading it at that time.  But when I saw it on a table at Barnes and Noble, along with The Bean Trees, it seemed like the right time to pick them both up.  So I did.  I'm very glad that I did.

This is a terrific book, a mesmerizing read.  I think of it now as something of a cross between The Mosquito Coast and Heart of Darkness, but, in truth, it is a unique perspective that stands on its own.

The year is 1959 and a Baptist evangelist, Nathan Price, a man terribly damaged by his World War II experiences, has determined to take his family of a wife and four young daughters to the Congo, there to be a missionary and save the souls of those poor benighted (as he thinks)  natives.  The family, especially Nathan, has no real understanding or appreciation of the culture that they are going into.  Indeed, Nathan plans to plant his own culture, which he believes to be far superior, there, without regard to the wishes or feelings of the people he is determined to "save".

The story of everything that happened after Nathan's ill-considered decision is told in the unique voices of the five women - Orleanna, the wife; Rachel, the oldest daughter; Leah and Adah, the twins - one perfect, one crooked; and Ruth May, the baby of the family.  It is a tour de force of storytelling.

Each of the family members' various reactions to the landscape and people of Africa are at the heart of this story.  From Nathan's rejection of and refusal to compromise with - or even to listen to - the people's ideas and their mores worked out in the jungle over thousands of years; to Leah's initial attempts to follow in her father's footsteps only to have the dawning of awareness that perhaps there is another way of being and that the African culture may have merit, to, eventually, her acceptance of Africa and the African understanding of the world.

None of the Price family is left unchanged by their experiences and they will live the rest of their lives, however long they might be, touched and marked by those experiences. They will never get Africa out of their blood.

The prose in this book is lyrical.  I found myself again and again underlining passages that I wanted to return to later.  I don't usually do that with books.  Kingsolver is a very good writer.  I have read some of her essays before but never one of her books.  I will be reading more and I hope to return to this one and read it again.  It is that good.


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