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.
Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist, and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in Africa in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in Biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her most famous works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family's attempts to eat locally.
Her work often focuses on topics such as social justice, biodiversity, and the interaction between humans and their communities and environments. Each of her books published since 1993 have been on The New York Times Best Seller list. Kingsolver has received numerous awards, including the UK's Orange Prize for Fiction 2010, for The Lacuna and the National Humanities Medal. She has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize to support "literature of social change."
Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955 and grew up in Carlisle in rural Kentucky. When Kingsolver was seven years old, her father, a physician, took the family to the former Republic of Congo in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her parents worked in a public health capacity, and the family lived without electricity or running water.
After graduating from high school, Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana on a music scholarship, studying classical piano. Eventually, however, she changed her major to biology when she realized that "classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of [them:] get to play 'Blue Moon' in a hotel lobby." She was involved in activism on her campus, and took part in protests against the Vietnam war. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1977, and moved to France for a year before settling in Tucson, Arizona, where she would live for much of the next two decades. In 1980 she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona, where she earned a Master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Kingsolver began her full-time writing career in the mid 1980s as a science writer for the university, which eventually lead to some freelance feature writing. She began her career in fiction writing after winning a short story contest in a local Phoenix newspaper. In 1985 she married Joseph Hoffmann; their daughter Camille was born in 1987. She moved with her daughter to Tenerife in the Canary Islands for a year during the first Gulf war, mostly due to frustration over America's military involvement. After returning to the US in 1992, she separated from her husband.
In 1994, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University. She was also married to Steven Hopp, that year, and their daughter, Lily, was born in 1996. In 2004, Kingsolver moved with her family to a farm in Washington County, Virginia, where they currently reside. In 2008, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Duke University, where she delivered a commencement address entitled "How to be Hopeful".
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Kingsolver says, "I never wanted to be famous, and still don't, [...:] the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most." She says created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, "as a defence to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don't define yourself, it will get done for you in colourful ways."
On one hand, there is nothing new here, and on this same old tirade, I disagree strongly with the author. Examples:
* Relativism. I'm sorry, I believe infanticide to be wrong for all cultures, for all times.
* Missionaries, particularly protestant missionaries to Africa were entirely the endeavor of egotistic, abusive, colonialists who were merely out to change Africa into either a western society or an exploitative factory for western society. Wrong again, read Tom Hiney's "On the Missionary Trail" for a non-fiction perspective that documents ways in which many missionaries were actually upsetting the colonial balance by preparing native peoples for independence, tutoring leaders on negotiation with world powers, recording native history and cultural practices and transcribing their languages, ; see also Philips Jenkins' "The Next Christendom". https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
* Marriage is an oppressive institution that consumes women; they need to escape. Certainly SOME marriages are, but that doesn't mean we go the way of disregarding it as a foundational institution of society.
* America is an evil power of which we should all be ashamed. False again. I cannot deny mistakes have been made in American foreign policy, and certainly events of the Congo, as presented in this book, would appear to be this way. But, there are also many things America has done that are good (such as preserving freedom for those who live here to write books ripping on America), and these shouldn't be ignored.
* All cultural traditions should be preserved because they have merit in and of themselves. I do not agree with this at all. Female circumcision should not be, regardless of whether it is a cultural tradition. Not only does it serve no purpose to enhance the lives of either men or women, it is destructive to them. At the same time, the American high-fat, high-sugar diet, while traditional (burgers, fries and shakes) should be changed. American isolationalism that doesn't consider other cultures and peoples should also go too.
* The work is hailed as an "examination of personal responsibility". Clearly all Belgians, American, colonialists, businessmen, husbands/fathers, missionaries, and mothers (to a lesser extent) are to be found culpable in the downfall of the Congo, as if this type of situation has never occurred in history before. But the truth is often far more complex, and the events in Congo, while horrible, cannot really be understood outside of their larger context. Was Congo the only African nation to suffer? Was there truly not a single benefit of colonialism? Were all businessmen/ westerners culpable or colluding? Were all involved in the downfall of the Congo Christians? Were not the African leader, Mbuto (funded by the US, yes) and his followers not equally guilty of selling out Africans for personal gain? Were there not some westerners (like the noble parents of the author mentioned in the prelude) trying to make life better for Africans? Is this not the same thing we see currently in Zimbabwe? If we are going to examine evil and exploitation, let's remember that no one person, country, or even time, has a lock on it. And lets not paint extreme pictures of those we chose to reject, while painting those we agree with in glowing terms. As with many fictional accounts, we don't like to admit the good and the bad falls on both sides.
*Christianity is merely a tool people use to exploit others and promote their own agenda. I fundamentally disagree with this perspective. Christianity is a relationship with Christ that involves following after Him and becoming more like Him.
The extreme situation the author creates in this fictional account allows her to proclaim her philosophies of life with vigor, particularly anti-Christianity and anti-Americanism. In the foreword, she makes effort to point out that her parents (who went to the Congo in the same time period) have NOTHING in common with the main subjects of the work, essentially preparing the reader for the assault upon the southern baptist missionary and his 4 children from Georgia who are the main characters.
With such flaws, a work should be easily dismissed. However, there are some glowing strong points. The writing is exceptional, and there are many rich scenes that are not soon forgotten. The understanding of African life, customs, language and landscape as well as the ability to portray this amazingly beautiful land as a living organism were compellingly impressed upon my mind. The character development and interaction of perspectives (each chapter is the perspective of one character, the book being a series of their interwoven stories), is extraordinary; though it is noteworthy that the author doesn't include a single chapter from the perspective of the husband/father/missionary zealot of the family, but only permits him to be defined by the others. I really cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen to them.
The examination of cross-cultural interaction and communication is powerfully illustrated as we begin with a purely American perspective that slowly opens (through the eyes of some, not all, characters) to an African perspective.
While it might be a helpful work to those longing to know Africa or understand cross-cultural disconnects, I cannot give it more than two stars because of the blatant agenda referenced above.
ADDENDUM: For those really wanting to understand the history of the Congo, including the dark side of it's formation, I recommend "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild. Hochschild's work is well told, enjoyable even to non-historians, and will give an excellent picture of the dynamics (both the good and the evil) at work in the Congo. Looking back, compared to the exceptional "King Leopold's Ghost", Poisonwood Bible was an incredible waste of time - i'm lowering it to one star. Tom Hiney's "On the Missionary Trail" is also excellent in content, though not as well written, for those interested in the lives of ordinary (meaning not generally famous) missionaries around the world.
Give Me this Mountain, Roseveare, 1966 https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... This is a non-fiction memoir written by a missionary serving in the Congo during the time period covered by Kingsolver. You will notice the prose lacks Kingsolver's enchantment, but you will learn something of what it was actually like for a mission and some of it's servants to live through the independence of the Congo and the following civil war.
PS. I believe this to be the WORST review I have ever written on Goodreads, yet it is the most discussed! I was so annoyed by the material, I didn't want to spend the time to polish my thoughts - I just wanted to be done with it! Yes, now I regret it. For what I consider better work, and no less controversial, check out my review and follow up comments/ discussion of Roots by Alex Haley. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
There's plenty of Goodreads reviewers who felt differently, but I found The Poisonwood Bible to be a very strong and very different piece of historical fiction. It's a slower story than I normally like, something you might want to consider before deciding whether to try this 600+ page exploration of colonialism, postcolonialism and postcolonial attitudes, but I very much enjoyed this incredibly detailed portrait of a family and a society set in the Belgian Congo of 1959. And I, unlike some other readers, didn't see evidence of a narrow-minded agenda in Kingsolver's tale. I didn't really see this as a book about lessons or morals, I saw it as a close look at the reality of this time and the different way it can be perceived depending on your point of view.
I like writers who explore without trying to impart a lesson, who lay out a canvas but let the reader draw their own conclusions from it. This adds depth and a layer of complexity to the novel that allows for that dreaded word - interpretation - to rear its head. But different interpretations make for very interesting conversations. And I love it when reading a book creates a two-way stream of ideas, those of the author and those of the reader, the kind of book that asks me to think instead of proceeding to think for me. Lectures on colonialism? Been there, done that, give me this more thought-provoking method any day.
I particularly like what Tatiana said about the different POVs of the Price family and how each showed a different side and a different attitude to colonialism. From those who saw it as the West's duty to educate and industrialize "savages" and rid them of such damaging practices as genital mutilation and infanticide; to those who feel embarrassed at what the West has done to the postcolonial world and believe in the need for cultural respect. It's complex because there isn't a simple answer to the questions raised by colonialism. Do objective, absolute truths ever exist? Where does culture end and universal human rights begin? Is humanitarian intervention a responsibility or an excuse to impose Western beliefs and values on postcolonial societies? Kingsolver shows the many sides to this issue and lets you draw your own conclusions.
The story is about Nathan Price and his family. Nathan is an evangelical Baptist from Georgia who believes God has sent him on a mission to save - through religious conversion - the "savage" citizens of the Belgian Congo. With him are his wife and four daughters and the novel alternates between each of these five perspectives. I'm not usually a fan of any more than two POVs but this book turned out to be a rare exception. Maybe because Kingsolver spent the necessary time developing each individual character so none of the perspectives felt unnecessary or like filler.
I've spent a lot of time comparing this book to another I read recently - A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are both books about countries and cultures that I was only vaguely familiar with and they are both about a very specific turning point in each country's history. And while they are both good, in my opinion, they are also two very different kinds of novels. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a fast-paced, emotional, dramatic page-turner that has you constantly on the edge of your seat. I read it in a single day and wanted to recommend it to every person who hadn't read it. The Poisonwood Bible, on the other hand, is a slower, more complex, more demanding work that is even more satisfying when you look back over it and observe its clever details as a whole. It's not for everyone and I'm sure my Empire and Decolonization course helped prepare me somewhat for it.
Ultimately, I really liked how Kingsolver uses the different perspectives to take on the different attitudes to postcolonialism. For me, this is a clever and thought-provoking novel that goes beyond what many other books of its kind have achieved.
In late 1950s Congo, an American missionary arrives with his family intent on bringing enlightenment to the savages. The experiences of the family are told by the preacher’s wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, the vain Rachel, twins Leah, who is devoted to her father, and Adah, damaged at birth but more aware than anyone realizes, and the baby, Ruth Ann. The events take place during a period when Congo was eager to cast off its colonial chains and we see some details of events of the time.
Barbara Kingsolver - from the Guardian
This is a tale not merely about a missionary family in an alien land, but about learning to see what is in plain sight. It is about opening the mind and the heart. We learn about the local culture, good and bad, as well as about the mores of the missionaries.
The father is presented as a mindless faith-robot, determined to convert the heathen while being completely clueless about and uninterested in learning how to actually communicate with them. I would have preferred it had this character been given some more dimension, instead of serving as a stand-in for the arrogance of western cultural imperialism. His family is given a better shake. Through Orleanna’s and the girls eyes we see not only their private struggles and coming of age, but gain insight into and information about the strange world into which they have been thrust. Kingsolver reminds us of the time period with small portraits of local involvement in the independence movement.
I expect that there will be those who reject the novel because it takes an anti-imperialist and anti-missionary perspective, ignoring the aspects of the tale that are critical of local practices as well. But I did not react to this book as a political screed. There is great craft at work here. Kingsolver offers poetic descriptions that I found extremely beautiful, rich and moving. Her main characters were well-realized and accessible, and she succeeded nicely in giving each a very individual voice. The path along which she moves her characters made sense to me and only rarely did I have a tough time accepting her authorial choices.
Overall, this is a terrific book, well-crafted, informative and satisfying.
For any interested in learning about the history of the Congo, particularly as it pertains to Belgium’s role, there is no better read than Adam Hochschild ‘s King Leopold’s Ghost, an outstanding telling of that story.
I read this over a two day span in college when I was home for winter break. We had a power outage so I found the sunniest room in the house and read all day. Although I prefer Kingsolver's works about the American southwest, this remains one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.
“The forest eats itself and lives forever.” Image: “The Trees Have Eyes” by Angela Wright
There is magic in these pages. Not the supernatural kind. Not the magical-realism kind. But magic of language and of the TARDIS kind: by some strange sorcery, many huge themes are thoroughly but lightly explored in single volume that is beautiful, harrowing, exciting, tender, occasionally humorous, and very approachable.
“We messengers of goodwill adrift in a sea of mistaken intentions.”
Freedom and Forgiveness
“I was lodged in the heart of darkness… I cowered beside my cage, and though my soul hankered after the mountain, I found... I had no wings.”
This is multi-layered, multi-faceted, and multi-narrated. But the many themes all concern the craving for freedom. Freedom of individuals and of nations, from exploitation, superstition, poverty, hunger, disease, bad relationships, and colonial oppressors.
When freedom is offered, there is the difficulty of recognising it and having the courage to accept it. In the final third, the stories flow in separate channels, yet the theme narrows to the idea that freedom requires letting go. Specifically, we must forgive others and ourselves before we can be truly free.
Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children, and The Eyes in the Trees
The seven sections are titled after pertinent books of the Bible or Apocrypha.
In 1959, a Baptist minister takes his wife and four daughters (Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth May) from suburban Georgia, USA on a one-year mission to a remote village in the Congo, shortly before independence. The first two-thirds concern their departure, arrival, and year in Kilanga. The remainder follows their diverging lives up to 1986 and beyond. The final section is a slightly superfluous race through a couple of decades.
The narration switches between Orleanna, the now elderly wife/mother looking back, and the four daughters nearer the "now" of that stage of the story. All are independent minded and intelligent, each with a distinctive voice, which develops plausibly with the story (except for the one Kingsolver probably least identifies with, who becomes something of a caricature in middle age). Each illustrates a different Western approach to Africa: meidcal fix, submission/immersion, political reform, colonial paternalism. They could easily just be stereotypes (vicar's wife; the sweet sixteen, caring about cosmetics and fashion; the nature-loving, religious tomboy; the silent, thoughtful, limping observer; the gregarious child), but Kingsolver makes each uniquely believable and engaging, especially mute Adah whose words are those of a sensuous, awe-struck, and non-judgemental poet.
Nathan, whose damaged psyche, guilt, and inflexible beliefs are the trigger for everything, is only ever known through the words of the women he despises. Unfair or karma? Giving him a single chapter would seem tokenistic, and equal billing would unbalance the whole book. I think the way Kingsolver has written it rectifies the imbalance of his long-term power over the women in the story.
For Better or Worse
“The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew.”
Orleanna is married to a man who does not, and probably never could love her. She is pained that “The thing you love more than this world grew from a devil’s seed”, but loves her very different children regardless. She wrestles with whether and how to leave Nathan, considering the consequences for the girls. With hindsight, she wonders what she was guilty of: complicity, loyalty, stupefaction? But she was a victim, too.
That abusive marriage is beautifully contrasted with a tender, devoted couple. They struggle for mere survival and are often forced apart, sometimes for long periods, but their love and commitment never waver. As with freedom and forgiveness, the difficulty is not merely finding love, but recognising it and then daring to grasp it and cling to it.
I expect different themes dominate, depending on the individual circumstances of each reader. I could write a whole review focusing on any one of these:
• The circle of life, eating and being eaten, survival. “Alive, nobody matters much in the long run. But dead, some men matter more than others.”
• The butterfly effect: “The sting of a fly… can launch the end of the world.” And “Every life is different because you passed this way.”
• Nature, nurture, how landscape shapes peoples, despite their attempts to shape it.
• Sin, original sin (snakes), sins of the Father and consequences - for individuals, but also in terms of colonialism, reparations, freedom.
• Guilt, judgement and privilege, especially survivor guilt and white privilege. Everyone here is burdened with guilt, mostly of an unnecessary kind or degree. “God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us enough life to punish ourselves.”
• The Bible, faith (and loss of), religion: life insurance or life sentence; life-jacket or straitjacket? Truth versus intention of the Bible and God.
• Language, (mis)translation, misunderstanding, wordplay (especially Malapropisms (circus-mission for circumcision!) and palindromes), and literalism – or not – in interpreting the Bible.
• Polysemy and poisonwood. “Mbote… means hello and goodbye, both.” Dundu is a kind of antelope, a particular plant, a hill, or the “price you have to pay”. The words of “baptism” and “to terrify” sound almost the same. And most disastrously for Nathan, bangala means most precious (Jesus), most insufferable – and poisonwood.
• Freedom, liberty, independence – and their cost.
• Education: its importance, and especially the need to understand (rather than merely know). “Our hardest task is teaching people to count on a future.”
• Clash of cultures: “Africa swallowed the conqueror’s music and sang a new song of her own.” The need to adapt, and the disastrous consequences of not doing so. “It’s like he’s trying to put rubber tires on a horse” but there are no horses in the Congo, “The point I was trying to make was so true there was not even a good way to say it.”
• The role of women: in their own right, but also as wives and mothers.
• Consumerism, agriculture, colonialism, war, politics, the environment.
• Listening, watching, eavesdropping (“The Eyes in the Trees”): by God, animals, and fellow humans - alive and dead. One of Rachel’s better Malapropisms is “false-eye dolls”.
• Disability and identity. Disability may “not be entirely one’s fault” but one should have the “good manners to act ashamed” in the face of “the arrogance of the able-bodied”. Yet, being “cured” might not be a blessing.
• Change, adaptation, and finding one's true self - the character development is really well done. “To live is to be marked. To live is to change. To acquire the words of a story.”
• Love, loyalty, sacrifice, hope.
• Symbolism, prophesy, foreboding: Biblical (of course), but others, too, such as the “hope chests” the girls prepare for future marriage: one sees no need, one applies black borders, one does it carefully, and another doesn’t do it at all. Also colonialism of Africa having parallels with individual people.
Sensual and Synaesthetic Quotes
• "She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water's skin, as if he were lapping from her hand."
• “Rainy-season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth.”
• “Emily Dickinson: No snikcidy lime, a contrary name with a sourgreen taste... She liked herself best in darkness, as do I."
• Bright fabrics “worn together in jangling mixtures that ring in my ears”.
• “Rattling words on the page calling my eyes to dance with them.”
• “Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa.”
• “While my husband’s intentions crystallized as rock salt… the Congo breathed behind the curtain of the forest, preparing to roll over us like a river.”
• “All those smells were so loud in my ears.”
• “The silk texture of that cool air, the smell of Congolese earth curling its toes under a thatch of dead grass.”
• "Consecrate myself in the public library."
• “Here, bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace… I enjoy a benign approval… that I have never, ever known in Bethlehem, Georgia.”
• “Sending a girl to college is like pouring water on your shoes.”
• “Whatever happens… Father acts like it’s a movie he’s already seen and we’re just dumb for not knowing how it comes out.”
• “To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points.”
• “The buzzards rise from the leafless billboard tree and flap away like the sound of old black satin dresses beating together.”
• “I am the smooth, elegant black cat who slips from the house as a liquid shadow… With my own narrow shadow for a boat I navigate the streams of moonlight that run between shadow islands.”
• “The radio a live mass of wires oozing from his trunk, a seething congregation of snakes.”
• “Yellow leaves… littering the ground like a carpet rolled out for the approaching footsteps of the end of time.”
• “The sun hung low on the river, seemingly reluctant to enter this strange day. Then it rose redly into the purpled sky, resembling a black eye.”
• “Chasing flames that passed hungrily over the startled grass.”
• “As long as I kept moving my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me.”
• Even in solitude, there are “exploding moments” of unexpected “companionship and joy” such as “A kiss of flesh-coloured sunrise while I hung out the washing, a sigh of indigo birds exhaled from the grass.”
• “By [X] I was shattered and assembled, by way of [X] I am delivered not out of my life but through it. Love changes everything.” Inadvertently echoing Nathan’s belief that God delivers us not from suffering, but through it.
• “I recite the Periodic Table… like a prayer; I take my exams as Holy Communion, and the passing of the first semester was a sacrament.”
• “Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us: those are our four ways to exodus, for now.”
For a very different take on the missionary experience, see Michel Faber's interplantary, The Book of Strange New Things, reviewed HERE.
I am the oldest sister and a typical teenage girl, oh-jeez-oh-man. All I want is to go back to Georgia and kiss boys outside the soda bar, but instead here I am stuck in the Congo with unconditioned hair and ants and caterpillars and scary-but-with-a-heart-of-gold black people. Jeez Louise, the life of a missionary's daughter. Also I make a whole lot of hilarious Malabarisms, that's just one of the tenants of my faith. There's two of them now! Man oh man.
The other day, Anatole rushed into our hut all excited about news from the wider world. ‘Great events are underway, Miss Price!’ he said. ‘Oh really?’ I asked, wondering if he would do for a love interest. ‘What's happening?’
Anatole took a deep breath. ‘Well, in the fallout from the Léopoldville riots, the report of a Belgian parliamentary working group on the future of the Congo was published in which a strong demand for "internal autonomy" was noted. August de Schryver, the Minister of the Colonies, launched a high-profile Round Table Conference in Brussels in January 1960, with the leaders of all the major Congolese parties in attendance. Lumumba, who had been arrested following riots in Stanleyville, was released in the run-up to the conference and headed the MNC-L delegation. The Belgian government had hoped for a period of at least 30 years before independence, but Congolese pressure at the conference led to 30 June 1960 being set as the date. Issues including federalism, ethnicity and the future role of Belgium in Congolese affairs were left unresolved after the delegates failed to reach agreement,’ he said.
‘Well I guess that's us brought up to date, then,’ I sighed. Anatole folded up his printout from Wikipedia and left the hut.
Sunrise unties blue skies clockwise. Pinot noir, caviar, mid-sized car, Roseanne Barr. I have a slightly deformed body and I Do Not Speak, which means I have more time for deep, ponderous internal monologues and wordplay. Ponder. Red nop. That's my thing – I say words backwards. Ti t'nsi, gniyonna? For you see, each of us Price girls needs a distinctive stylistic tic, otherwise we'd all sound exactly the same. Bath, sack, cock, cash, tab! There's a palindrome for you. No nasal task, Congo – loud duolog nocks Atlas anon. Good luck finding a profound thematic message in one of these. But if I run out of them, I guess I could always just go through the nearest Kikongo dictionary for material. *flips to page 342* Nkusu means ‘parrot’ but nkusi means ‘fart’. Hmmm. I wonder how many paragraphs I can get out of that?
I am just a widdle girl. I don't understand half of the things I see around me, which is just as well, given all the conflict diamonds and CIA agents I keep stumbling on. I play with all the children in the village, even though I have no toys, which is sad. If one of the village children dies, it's just as sad and tragic as if one of us cute little white girls dies. Well, not really, obviously, otherwise the whole book would have been about a Congolese family in the first place, but maybe if I keep saying it you'll at least think about it for a couple of minutes. Daddy doesn't seem to like the Congolese at all. Our daddy is such a big meanie. He loves god a whole bunch but he's just awful to Mother and my sisters. He's just the nastiest ogre you can imagine. ’Course, I guess he probably wouldn't see things that way. That's why we don't let him narrate any chapters of his own.
I had a hard time choosing between 2 and 3 stars -- really, it should be 2.5. I thought the prose was quite lovely; Kingsolver has a nice voice. I enjoyed reading about a part of the world of which I have no experience. The description of the clash of cultures was well done.
However. The author had an agenda and she really didn't mind continually slapping us in the face with it. Now, I don't pretend the US hasn't made mistakes and won't continue on making mistakes. But to equate one group of people with only one characteristic (American = greedy, capitalistic devil) and another group with the entirely opposite characteristic (African = naive, innocent angel) is not just a little prejudicial. Please: people in general have a little more depth than that. In fact, I would assume that the only evil African was Mobutu (who, I interpreted, was probably OK until corrupted by America) and the only really good American was Leah (since she ended up reviling the US).
And as for one-dimensional characters... I wish that Kingsolver had had at least one chapter in Nathan Price's voice. We are meant to hate him, and I did: I wanted him to get eaten by a leopard, or have someone hit him over the head with a shovel. Yet we got glimpses into his personality before WWII and got hints that he has scars as well. Why was he the way he was? What went on in his mind? For the person who most affected the major characters' lives, we end up knowing remarkably little about him, other than that he was a "despicable man". I felt that Kingsolver meant him to represent evil (how could he not be, as not only white and Christian, but a man to boot?) and decided that he needed no more explanation than that.
Overall, a very enlightening book, but I think a non-fiction and slightly more objective book on the topic would have had a much bigger impact on me than the story Kingsolver tried to craft around the obviously heartbreaking struggle of the Congolese.
Women put up with a great deal from men. This is a truism which can’t be reinforced too frequently, if only to remind women that they often collaborate with masculine arrogance to their own - and the world’s - disadvantage. Getting out from under, as it were, requires hitting them where it hurts - not in the private parts but in the intimacies of family life. Essentially, men have no defense against feminine dismissal of their pretensions as merely foolish.
Most of the common male presumptions are contained in The Poisonwood Bible - superior intellect, more serious spiritual existence, greater ability to organise and act, and a keener insight about what it takes to survive in the world. These are observed, suffered, and analysed by a family of four girls who are dragooned with their mother to a remote mission station in the Congo in the early 1960’s. They submit because they have been taught to do so. Submission is a requirement of their interpretation of love, loyalty, and family commitment.
Reverend Paterfamilias is of course incompetent in every aspect of the family’s African endeavour. From his doctrinaire dismissal of local culture, to his refusal to take advice on gardening, he is a persistent failure. The women compensate. The man considers he has learned. He hasn’t. He remains as fundamentally ignorant as he has always been.
“Our Father“, as the disabled daughter refers to him sarcastically, is a misogynistic religious fanatic who would crumble into a heap of ash without the constant hidden and unappreciated support by his female family members and the other women of the village they inhabit. The Reverend is yet another species of animal which thrives in Africa: the parasite.
It takes their African life and its cultural dislocation to demonstrate to the women just how parasitical the man is. Their experience slowly relativises the certainties of their previous cultural existence. From the rationalisation of racism, to the Calvinist mores of work and dress, to the subtleties of their own subservience, they begin to recognise the elements of the cultural prison which encloses them and the oppressive tactics of their chief warder.
“How we wives and mothers do perish at the hands of our own righteousness.” This is the point of revelation for the Reverend’s wife. Unlike her husband, she recognises her true helplessness, her profound vulnerability to the world as it is without the mythical protections of either religion or technology. She also begins to understand that most of those purported protections are beneficial not to her but to her husband.
One by one all the women of the family come to recognise the sole male as the exploitative fool he is. “Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.” Is how one daughter puts it. In fact he was wrong anyplace, as many men are, men who wield power, who coerce and make victims of those who do not. They need not be fundamentalist preachers of course; but they generally have the same kind of ambition to dominate.
Oddly, this realisation leads to guilt. In part perhaps because it is as much about the culture from which they have emerged and to which they will not return. But mainly because their historic subjugation has led to avoidable tragedy. They should have known better than to have confidence in this man and his delusions. They couldn’t, of course, without the experiences he had imposed upon them. Hence the paradoxical guilt.
Reviewing in the face of the great billows of love projected towards this novel is a hapless task, your hat blows off and your eyes get all teary and if you say one wrong thing small children run out of nowhere and stone you or just bite your calves. So I shall this one time sheathe my acid quill. But I can't resist just a couple of little points though -
1) you have to suspend great balefuls of disbelief. These kids, they're awfully highfalutin with their fancy flora and fauna and fitful forensic philosophising. And the mother is worse, you can see where they get it from.
2) I don't care for the historical novel/film cliche where a character rushes in and clues us up to the bigger picture - "Have you heard, Sophie? War has broken out between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Turks, the English fleet has just been sunk, the king has fled and we have a new Pope" "Why Sir Marmalade Gin-Rummy, you don't say so, and how is the Queen?" "The Queen has syphilis and now barks like a very dog" etc etc.
3) For 350 pages the writing is lovely and the recreation of one tiny corner of the Congo convinced me. Ah if it was only all like that, then we could remain friends and there would be no tears before bedtime.
4) After that it goes really wrong. I mean, seriously.
5) But 350 pages can't be denied. It's more than you get from most books.
I'll wait until after I've finished this review before I read other Goodread reviews of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, but I did take a quick look at the numeric ratings other reviewers have given the book. A couple of reviewers have given this book a four rating, but most of the reviewers have given this book either a rating of three or five. That makes perfect sense because this book deserves both a three and five rating. It deserves a three rating because it can be a long and slow read, and there isn't much plot progression. It deserves a five rating because it gives readers Shakespearen quality characters and the sensation of having shared life-altering experiences.
This novel is a tale about the Price family. There are two adults and four kids in the Price family. The children are all girls. The middle two are twins. The father, Nathan, is a tad crazy. The mother, Orleanna, has problems asserting her own identity.
I grew up in a similar family during a time that was almost identical, so it was easy for me to identify with the Price family.
Nathan Price uprooted his family and moved them to the Belgium Congo shortly before the Belgium Congo obtained its independence in 1960. At this point, I'm going to cut away from the Price family and talk about life in 1959.
In 1959, Eisenhower was still President. JFK was running for President. There was Jim Crow in the South, and Redlining in the North. Edward R. Murrow attempted to provide the USA with a moral compass. Douglas Edwards was the news anchor at CBS. John Foster Dulles, the Clarence Thomas of white diplomats, was Secretary of State. The Cold War was warming up, and people were debating if they should build fallout shelters in their backyards.
In 1959 Doo Wop music was the rage. Like everything else, music was segregated. Sam Cooke eventually integrated the music scene, but he was killed for his efforts. White radio stations played white groups like Dion and the Belmonts. Black radio stations played black groups like Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters. White groups like The Weavers were blacklisted.
In 1959, I was eleven years old. My best friend had turned me onto the Hardy Boys and The Kingston Trio. I owned two LPs. One record album was by The Kingston Trio, and the other was by The Drifters. To this day, they're still my favorite two records. Back then, I watched Douglas Edwards anchor the evening news. Walter Cronkite wasn't yet on the scene. When I wasn't watching the news or reading a Hardy Boys Mystery, I played one or the other of my LP records on the stereo system my brother had built. The Kingston Trio sang The Merry Minuet, so I knew, "They're rioting in Africa." That bit of information was later confirmed by Douglas Edwards when he told me what was happening in the Belgium Congo.
Not to change the subject, but before I got to high school, I was educated mainly by spinsters. Spinsters who all had female housemates who lived with them for purposes of sharing expenses. In 1959 it was okay for a woman to live with another woman just as long as they both had low paying jobs, they were "just sharing expenses", and they didn't talk much about their home life. When I got to 7th grade, my science and math teacher was one of those spinsters. Her reputation as a disciplinarian pretty much gave me a conniption, but on those few occasions when I was forced to talk to her one-to-one, she was a regular lady.
I'm mentioning my 7th grade math-science teacher because she was the only actual person I've ever actually met who had actually been to the Congo. Not only that, but she was there at about the same time as when the Price family first arrived. (Is that a coincidence, or what?) I mean she was really in the Congo; that is, if you can believe driving through the Congo South-to-North in a caravan of Land Rovers counts as actually being there. I don't know if she actually met any Congolese people, but she saw lots of animals and took lots of photos. (I mean, she shot lots of animals, but not a one was hurt by it.)
Back to the Price family. I'm grateful for two things. First, I'm grateful I was able to experience what they experienced without actually experiencing it. Second, I'm grateful I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, not Kilanga.
People love this book, and I think I understand why. It's got a collection of strong characters, each chapter is written from a different character's point of view, and it's set in Africa, which is exciting. But there are a few reasons I don't think it's great literature.
The main things I expect from a good novel are: a) that the writer doesn't manipulate her characters for her agenda, b) that the characters' actions are consistent to the world the writer has created for them, c) good, tight prose, and d) the characters are nuanced and aren't entirely perfect or hideous. In this novel, the father character is entirely hideous and the mother and each daughter represent a plight of some kind. Their existence is to present arguments for and against lots of important issues in Africa, but for me that kind of thing is an extremely dissatisfying fiction experience.
I suppose there is an argument for fictionalizing reality in order to make it more palatable and invite a larger audience to your cause, but I don't think this novel is successful in that regard. I found it overly preachy, critical, and completely disrespectful to its characters, whom I believe deserve a better story in which to thrive.
5 epic, no wonder this book is so well-loved stars, to The Poisonwood Bible! ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Review of the audio. 🎧
The Price family, including minister father, Nathan, mother, Orleanna, and four daughters, traveled to the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s to serve a Baptist mission. The mom and daughters are the narrators, and I enjoyed the audio narrator’s voices for each of the characters (even her southern accent wasn’t too off the mark!). I do have to warn for audio fans, there were so many characters and voices, making it hard for me to keep track with just the audio. I will most definitely be reading this book in the future, once I’ve forgotten a little.
The writing was atmospheric without being overly detailed. The characters were as round as round could be. I felt all kinds of emotions while listening. There was tragedy, there was joy, but overall, the tone was somber, and much of that was due to the political stirrings in Congo at the time, as well as due to Nathan’s harsh enforcement of his interpretations of the Bible.
The book was epic in proportions because it covered this entire family over a long period of time, and not a stone was left unturned. Overall, I enjoyed every bit of it.
*A couple sidenotes. This book has been languishing on my shelf un-read since Oprah chose it for her book club. I’m so glad I finally read it. This was a Traveling Sister read, which I enjoyed immensely! 💕 As I read the book, I wondered how the author thought up all this story! The Author’s Note explained it in detail.
Religious devotion many times leads to fanaticism which kills the family unit. This happens everyday--here is a chronicle of this. This diluted (& superscary-in-a-different-way) version of "The Shining" is complex, emotional. It is written similarly to "The Joy Luck Club", in different vignettes all of which are articulated in a distinguished, feminine P.O.V.
The location is the Congo before and after independence--the plot is about a preacher who treks to the jungle with his family. We end up caring so much for the four doomed Price sisters because their personalities are so different; this affords the reader a chance to breeze through the resounding narrative and never arrive at boredom. Rachel is superficial... a "Paris Hilton" (ha) figure... a Princess with no kingdom and, alas, no King. Leah is the tomboy whose roots remain in Africa even after the "Exodus." Adah is the idiot savant whose keen observations place her in the position of poet. And little Ruth May is the anchor-- the treasure. The mother is a victim of an over-religious spouse who is ineffective both in the community and household. He is in the background, just like all the historical pinpoints of paramount significance (chief of which is Lumumba's assassination, the rise of the dictatorship and the segue to the countless genocides...), & the women (including the thoughts of an older mother Price on her deathbed) are where they belong, in the forefront. They are the heart and brains... & everything is displayed and named as though they were trying to assimilate us into their world, just like they had to evolve in harsh Africa. Whereas they had many hardships & moments of deep despair (were alone, except for "The Eyes in the Trees"), we the reader have awesome tour guides in all these accounts of the five unique women.
What is amazing about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the author’s voice.
Kingsolver casts a spell with the language she uses to describe three decades in the collective lives of the Price family, beginning with their time as missionaries in the Belgian Congo.
The structure is also a strength. The story is narrated by the mother and daughters of the Price family, each illustrating her perspective of the family chronicle as they experience what would become and what really began as an ill-fated mission. The ending family is a mirror image of the beginning, Leah Price and her four sons serving as the anti-missionary to Nathan Price’s strict and misguided zealotry.
Kingsolver’s imagery is reminiscent of Faulkner’s families, and it may be a silent nod to the Nobel Prize winner to have Orleana Price come from Mississippi. The reader cannot help but be reminded of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and especially As I Lay Dying, redolent by the altering perspectives of the characters narrative. Kingsolver also masterfully explores many Faulkneresque themes such as family, legacy, racism, guilt, and connections to land.
The author also depicts and expounds upon themes of motherhood, parent child relationships, feminism, colonial arrogance and forgiveness. Running in a current throughout the novel is religion and how Christianity blends and conflicts with animist theology. The Poisonwood Bible also records the history of colonial Congo as it transitions briefly to independence and then to a subjugation of another kind, while also spending some time with the economics of the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
What I cannot like about the book, and what becomes a fundamental, and distractingly unnecessary flaw is the lack of objective balance. Kingsolver is clearly critical of the Christian mission and Western capitalism, and her argument is persuasive. There is no doubt that Western influences, from colonial Belgium to CIA interference to capitalistic excesses have caused devastating problems in the region. What is maddening about the narrative is Kingsolver’s use of straw man arguments, when she does not need to! She has made her point and well, so refusing to even acknowledge a counter argument weakens her otherwise powerful reasoning.
The characters Nathan and Rachel Price are unnecessarily one-dimensional. She provides an intriguing back-story to explain some of Nathan’s neurosis but uses him simply as a foil to Leah’s development and as an inverse example of her pragmatic spirituality. Rachel’s character is really a caricature, almost a comic relief, and this glaring juxtaposition to Ada’s allegorical maturity further diminishes Kingsolver’s otherwise impressive artistic achievement.
Still, these flaws are far from fatal and Barbara Kingsolver has created a memorable work.
** 2018 addendum - it is a testament to great literature that a reader recalls the work years later and this is a book about which I frequently think. Excellent.
I finished the last 300 pages in 2 days (which is very fast for me - English books). I felt every emotion under the sky with this book. I hated Nathan Price, I hated injustice, I hated my uselessness, I hated the fact that there are no good prospects for Africa in the future. As a Geographic major I strongly believe that the closer you are to the Equator, the longer it will remain an underdeveloped country. Of course the country itself is full of resources (in non-foods) that could make them rich, but nothing can feed the overpopulated cities. Politics obstruct any way of turning diamonds into food. Anyway, I loved the fact the author talked so much about how they processed their lives and experiences in the Congo. To some degree that's how I am. I grew up poor and desolate and now live in this insane country where everything is available. I feel restless and unsettles at times. Like Orleanna who can't wear shoes in Atlanta because she needs to feel dirt between her feet I prefer to walk to church (with stroller and kids) in Minus degree weather because that's my connection to my family and culture in Germany. Nobody gets it when we arrive at church with red noses, fully aware that we have a functional car. I love and miss Ruth May. I cried a lot about dead animal. I laughed at her timely wittiness in describing the culture clashes.
I learned one important point about African culture. The author lingered on the fact that Africans (especially villagers) can't grasp the fact of a family owning or keeping more than they need or consume at any point. When a fisherman caught a full net he immediately shares with his village. People don't ask for fish or thank for the fish. They just take. Because that's how it is. When the Prices arrived there with storage the kids came to beg at their door. Not because they were greedy or rude but that's how the village functions.
We have many African immigrants in our ward and neighborhood (sometimes I am the only white person in a store on any given day). For example when the Relief Society announces a committee meeting "With refreshments" some African women just show up. They go straight to the refreshment table (in the middle of the meeting, untouched foods and all) eat, and then go home. None has a calling but hears the call to eat the offered food. There is an abundance and they have no money for food. It's all logical to them to eat when it's available if they were invited or not. There are also many problems with African can't getting off welfare. Honorable families don't understand the reason not to take when it's for everyone to take and use. There is no thinking about the future, just filling the belly now.
One of our Book Club books this year is "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" by Ruby K Payne to help us interact better.
I loved it. It was a good book. A few flaws but easily forgivable for the beautiful philosophical writing. It was the best epic I read so far.
The Poisonwood Bible covers a cataclysmic period in the life of the Price family of Bethlehem, Georgia. Nathan Price, a Baptist preacher takes his wife and three daughters deep into the jungle of the Belgian Congo to spread the word of god. His unswerving path is clear, unarguable and dictated directly from above. He is driven, single minded and stubborn. However, we soon begin to suspect that Nathan will find it hard to save or convince anybody ....... including his family! His long suffering wife and three daughters have some love and respect for Nathan but this gradually dissolves in the heat, dust and massive privations that follow. Orleanna his dazed (but strong) wife soon questions this life changing move and their children are rocked by culture shock. Ruth May is a precocious five year old, Leah a fifteen year old tomboy, Adah is Leah’s frighteningly intelligent disabled twin and Rachel is 16, pretty and vain and continually aghast at her surroundings. The story is cleverly told through their multiple view points. The mission house is the only brick built building amongst huts and the Price family live an uneasy life apart from the villagers. They are tolerated, sometimes with good humour sometimes with irritation and distrust but are never really seen as anything more that a curiosity. Christianity is rarely considered as a serious competitor to the ancient gods that have served the villagers since time began. As the Price’s grapple with the incomprehensible and hostile world around them, violent political change is spreading across the Congo. Independence looms as Europe, Russia and American hover like vultures with eyes on the vast mineral wealth. Nationalism, racism, and the harm done to Africa by rich foreign powers are all themes that thread through this story. The novel builds up gradually, with great narrative skill to a shocking climax but then spends perhaps too long on the aftermath as we follow the main characters into the future and see how their collision with Africa has shaped their lives. Although interesting, the book in the latter stages, seems to lose focus and become a little drawn out. Reservations aside though, The Poisonwood Bible is an engrossing saga full of memorable characters, vivid set pieces and a lot of dark humour. A modern classic I think, and I’m eager to explore more works by Barbara Kingsolver.
A book that countless people told me to read, which I finally got round to doing. This is a provocative tale about the land that was once called Congo; the tale of a missionary and his family as told by his 4 daughters and wife over 40+ years the rise and fall and rise of the Price family. Very interesting in that I get to get a feel some of Africa's recent Colonial past albeit through European eyes. A book that definitely stayed with me after completion. 6 out of 12
Riveting...We read this aloud at home and I found it to be beautifully and movingly written, by turns charming and horrifying. Her articulation of the most subtle nuances of experience, the profoundly different narrative voices she assumes like an experienced character actress, and the way she fluently plays with language, show Kingsolver's love and mastery of her craft. Having been brought up by ultra-religious Christian parents myself, I found the children's and wife's experience strongly resonant and painfully authentic. I think you have to have lived it to know how accurate and insightful she is in her exposition of the nature of evangelical authoritarianism, it's effect on character, the power of rigidly imposed gender roles, the monomaniacal aspects of monotheism, the not-so-subtle and pervasive racism and sexism. I think the comparison to imperialism is smack on, and a valuable association that deserves, even needs, to be drawn, particularly in the world in which we live today, where the confluence of these two rivers of inhumanity threaten more every day to once again overflow with devastating consequences.
It cannot be too boldly stated that these twin terrors have together shaped our world for the worse, anciently and modernly. As a victim and survivor of both, to greater or lesser extent, Ms. Kingsolver has a natural right to portray them, and does so authoritatively. Both have an inherent dismissivness toward the dignity and value of individuals, engendering similar resentment, hopelessness, and a sense of helplessness, in their victims. The conceit and destructiveness inherent in both clearly make them horses of the very same color. We ignore their resemblance and relationship at our peril. It's important to know that this is Kingsolver's most autobiographical novel. She's writing from personal experience, as well as an impressively large body of knowledge about Africa and it's politics. She knows these people and places like the back of her hand. Like her main characters, she carries them wherever she goes.
Accepting a book recommendation offered up by my fellow Equinox Book Challenge participant, I chose to explore another novel related to the struggles of a maturing African continent. Making their way to the Belgian Congo in 1959, Nathan Price, his wife, and four daughter are ready to commence their missionary work. Arriving with everything they feel they might need, the Prices begin their journey, armed with Jesus, as they are surrounded with the locals in a jungle community. However, early on during their time, the Price women tell of all the changes they could not have predicted while still in the comforts of their Bethlehem, Georgia home. While Nathan seeks to convert the Congolese population—still stuck on their own spirits and medicine men— with his evangelical Baptist ways, the others begin to see that nothing is as it seems. American staples are of no use to anyone in the Belgian Congo and the learning curve is as sharp as can be. With Belgium ready to hand over control of the country to the Congolese, a political vacuum develops, where foreigners are painted with a single brush. Both sides in the Cold War seek to create a new ally, elbowing their way in, hoping to develop 20th century quasi-colonial territory in Africa, more along ideological lines than those of traditional tribe or cultural brethren. One cannot miss that Congo is rife with natural resources that both the Americans and Soviets might like, though this remains a whispered or ne’er spoken fact. While the Price family soon learns that it will take more than the presence of the Holy Spirit to protect them in this foreign land, each has a struggle to better understand their surroundings and themselves, all in the hopes of completing their mission. Personal growth and grief arrive in equal measure, leaving everyone to reassess their role in the Congo, as political and social stability disintegrates with each passing day. As the novel progresses, the Price girls mature into women, using their Congolese experiences to shape their adult lives, forever altered by what they have experienced. An interesting novel that pushes some of the limits of understanding from a missionary perspective, Kingsolver pulls no punches and lays out her agenda throughout. I’d surely recommend this novel to those who seek to explore an interesting journey through the jungles of Africa, prepared to digest and synthesise symbolism of the highest order and non-Western sets of beliefs.
While I have heard of this novel over the years, I never felt drawn to read it. Admittedly, I knew nothing of it and perhaps judged the book by its title—the lesser of the two evil things avid book readers with literary blinders tend to do—and chose to mentally shelve it. After reading two novels about the horrors of South Africa under the system of apartheid, I was ready for something new, but still on the continent. Learning that Kingsolver set this book in Africa, I wondered if it might complement some of the topics about which I had recently read, while also offering me something with a little less political frustration. Kingsolver presents an all-consuming novel that pushes the limits through the eyes of an American family, at times offering the presumptive ignorance of missionaries while also exploring massive clashes in cultural differences between the Western world and African villages. Kingsolver creates a wonderful core of characters, primarily the Price family, allowing her to paint dichotomous pictures of the proper way to live. Using various narratives led by all five women in the family, the reader is able to see the Belgian Congo/Congo/Zaire through different eyes. Backstories are plentiful, as are the character flaws that each possess, but all five are also keen to interpret their familial head—Pastor Nathan Price—with their own biases. This surely enriches the larger story as well as permitting the reader to feel a closer connection to all those who play a central role in the story’s progress. Kingsolver weighs in, both bluntly and in a wonderfully subtle manner, about the role of imperialism in African countries, which later led to a political game of Cold War chess and bloodshed to tweak the choices the Congolese made as they shed the shackles of their oppressors. Personal growth remains one of the key themes in the book, as all the girls become women and, by the latter portion of the book, their lives as adults and parts of families of their own. Kingsolver keeps the reader hooked throughout as she spins this wonderful tale that forces the reader to digest so much in short order. I am happy to have been able to read this piece and take away much from it, without the need to feel as frustrated as I might have been during my apartheid experience. Still, there is much to be said about the ‘backwards’ interpretation Europeans and missionaries had when spying the African jungle communities.
Kudos, Madam Kingsolver, for such a wonderful novel. I took much from all you had to say and will likely return to find more of your writings, hoping they are just as exciting.
This one took me a long time to read, not just because it has a lot of pages but also because I had to read every single word carefully and re read the best bits too! It is so beautifully written and so very evocative of the atmosphere of Africa.
It is told in the five different voices of the female members of the family and I have to admit to liking Adah's chapters the most. She has a wonderful way of looking at things and I especially liked the way she referred to her bible thumping father as "Our Father" sarcastically likening him to God himself. Rachel provided the humour to the book and I enjoyed her chapters after she left the family and made her own way in life in South Africa.
In truth I liked all five of them and became totally involved in their lives. Altogether a beautiful book.
This book literally put me into rage. In fact, I had to put it aside and read something a tad lighter (compared to The Poisonwood Bible even depressing The Lonely Polygamist is a lighter read) to be able to fall asleep. Reading about social injustices can do this to me sometimes.
The Poisonwood Bible is a story of a Baptist preacher Nathan Price who chooses to become a missionary in the Belgian Congo of 1959. Along with his unwavering beliefs and desire to bring salvation and enlightenment to savage natives, Nathan takes his wife and four daughters to Africa. His attempts to introduce Christianity to the residents of a tiny Congolese village are mostly fruitless, as Price knows very little of their language, culture, and religious beliefs. But the preacher is relentless, even when he hears the news of the looming Congolese independence and is warned to leave the country immediately because any westerner is unsafe in the country which is trying to free itself of decades-long white oppression. Nathan decides it is his calling to stay and continue his righteous work at all cost to him and his family. This decision does cost the family dearly. Not one of them comes out of this experience unscathed.
The novel is narrated from the POV of 5 Price women - Nathan's wife and daughters. Each has her own perspective on Nathan's work and on what is happening in the Congo. While none of the women physically takes part in a whirlwind of events the Congo is going through - the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, first election of the Prime Minister, the CIA-staged coup to eliminate this democratically chosen Prime Minister and to install his replacement who would guarantee the West's access to the Congo's natural resources and safeguard the country as a pillar of capitalism in Africa - each has to carry a burden of responsibility for what has happened to their family specifically and the country in general. The reactions vary from solidified dismissal of the natives and rampant feeling of white supremacy to complete acceptance of the responsibility for atrocities forced onto the African nations by whites.
In a way, the Price family is a symbol of colonialism. Nathan Price symbolizes the colonialist forces that think it is their right (if not responsibility) to bring change to the countries they misunderstand and look down upon, at any cost, including destroying people's cultures, religions, and leadership. And the Price women are representative of all of us, unwitting participants in all of this, who may chose to close our eyes and pretend nothing is happening or to try to do something drastic about it or in the least to acknowledge that such cultural arrogance is wrong.
I suppose some readers will this book off-putting because of its seeming liberal agenda and its negative portrayal of both Christianity and the West (mostly America). Well, I'll leave them to admire Rachel Price's POV and live in denial. I personally found this book very enlightening. Kingsolver speaks my language.
The reason why I am giving The Poisonwood Bible 4 stars and not 5 is because of the last few pages which left me feeling rather helpless. It seems, nothing that we do (including absolutely good-intentioned vaccinations and efforts to save children's lives) can bring anything but hardship to Africa. I guess, Kingsolver's last advice is to leave Africa to its own devices...
My introduction to the fiction of Barbara Kingsolver is The Poisonwood Bible, her 1998 novel that seems to be a staple of book clubs the world over, from Oprah's to the Dive Bar Book Club I've joined and which picked this as their August read. This book was an assignment and took me out of the rhythm I was in reading westerns, so that might have something to do with my crankiness and general disappointment of it in summary. Kingsolver immersed me in extraordinary description, materializing the distant world of central Africa out of a haze. But the book is too long, climaxing on page 385 of 543, and suffers from a problem of focus.
After a dreamy prologue in which a woman in her autumn years named Orleanna Price looks back on her life while on a beach in Georgia, the epic begins in the village of Kilanga, in what was then the nation of Congo. The year is 1959. The narrative is picked up by one of Orleanna's four daughters, Leah, who at the age of 14 begins as perhaps the most devoted to the calling of her father, the Reverend Nathan Price, a minister who campaigned with the Southern Baptist Mission League and raised tithes from his congregation in Bethlehem, Georgia for the opportunity to relocate his family to the village on the Kwilu River and save its souls.
The experience of the Prices in Congo is also related by Leah's fearless five-year-old sister Ruth May, her crooked spined but sharp minded 14-year-old twin Adah and her vapid 16-year-old sister Rachel. Though Kilanga once hosted four American missionary families and a doctor, the consensus by the Baptist couple who greet the Prices in Leopoldville is that it has fallen on hard times without a white person, the last holdout being a Catholic missionary named Fowles who apparently went native. After a raucous reception by the villagers, Father swings into action, planning baptisms in the Kwilu and planting a demonstration garden to teach the natives how to grow food.
Leah recalls, Not everyone can see it, but my father's heart is as large as his hands. And his wisdom is great. He was never one of those backwoods ministers who urge the taking up of copperhead snakes, baby-flinging, or the shrieking of nonsense syllables. My father believes in enlightenment. As a boy he taught himself to read parts of the Bible in Hebrew and before we came to Africa he made us all sit down and study French, for the furtherance of our mission. He has already been so many places, including another jungle overseas, in the Philippine Islands, where he was a wounded hero in the Second World War. So he's seen about everything.
The family share their home with a housekeeper whose pleas to Father to avoid the poisonwood bush in his garden and to plant in hills instead of rows are ignored. Brother Fowles left them furniture and a parrot named Methuselah, whose litany of curses--blamed on the Catholic missionary but actually due to a despairing Orleanna as her efforts to bake Rachel a birthday cake in Africa fail--so enrages the reverend that he banishes the bird to nature. Father's vision of baptizing the village in the Kwilu is mightily rejected. A crocodile killed a child on the same spot and word goes out that the white man wants to feed their children to the crocodiles.
Villagers content with their native gods watch the Prices for signs of how powerful Jesus is. Leah (nicknamed Beene, or truth) is thrilled when Father chooses her to accompany him to Leopoldville to witness the country's Independence from Belgium. Ruth May (Bandu, littlest one on the bottom) breaks through to the village children by teaching them to play Mother May I. Rachel (Mvula, a pale termite only seen after a rain) has her blonde hair yanked by children certain it must be a wig. Adah (Benduka, Crooked Walker) is so given to wandering off that when blood and the track of a lion are found behind hers, the village chief brings news of her demise.
Leah becomes attracted to a young schoolteacher named Anatole, who translates the sermons of "Reverend Prize" to Kikongo. When they lose their housekeeper in a row with Father over his baptism scheme, Anatole recommends one of his students, an able boy named Nelson, help out. Father refuses to heed the calls of their sponsors to leave Congo after the Belgian handover, even when their stipend is cut off. Mother grows despondent and bedridden and it is left up to the girls to feed the family while Father practices his sermons on the lilies. When she finally comes out of her stupor, Orleanna declares she is getting her girls out of here as soon as she finds a way. Rebellion is in the air.
Leah recalls, All my life I've tried to set my shoes squarely into his footprints, believing if only I stayed closed enough to him those same clean, simple laws would rule my life as well. That the Lord would see my goodness and fill me with light. Yet with each passing day I find myself farther away. There's a great holy war going on in my father's mind, in which we're meant to duck and run and obey orders and fight for all the right things, but I can't always make out the orders or even tell which side I am on exactly. I'm not even allowed to carry a gun. I'm a girl. He has no inkling.
While Leah emerges as the central narrative voice, each Price woman is given her own perspective in what gradually becomes a story about the assertion of a woman's independence from the male authority figure dictating her existence. A decent amount of suspense is generated as that battle culminates. Kingsolver, who in preparations for her 543-page novel never set foot in what was known from 1971 to 1997 as Zaire due to travel restrictions of the Mobutu regime, is a language artist first and foremost. Her descriptions of the Congo are vivid--hissing, smoking and at times overwhelming the senses before exploding like a multitude of fireworks.
It was hot that day, in a season so dry our tongues went to sleep tasting dust and woke up numb. Our favorite swimming holes in the creek, which should have been swirling with fast brown water this time of year, were nothing but dry cradles of white stones. Women had to draw drinking water straight from the river, while they clucked their tongues and told stories of women fallen to crocodiles in other dry years, which were never as dry as this one. The manioc fields were flat: dead. Fruit trees barren. Yellow leaves were falling everywhere, littering the ground like a carpet rolled out for the approaching footsteps of the end of time. The great old kapoks and baobabs that shaded our village ached and groaned in their branches. They seemed more like old people than plants.
Moving down the list from "language artist," Kingsolver may be a historian, geographer and storyteller in that order. That should be reversed. There's a lack of focus that grew thicker the more I read. I didn't mind jumping from the head of one Price woman to the other, but the flaw of the novel is that rather lock on a damn good story--a family's revolt against a dictatorial patriarch--it gets lost in trying to tell the impressions of a family's thirty years in Africa. The latter is nowhere near as compelling as the former. The novel climaxes on page 375 and keeps kept throwing description for another 168 pages. It's too much table dressing and not enough meal for me.
Bought the book a year ago and it took me some time to start reading it. I was encouraged to purchase it by some reviews I'd read and though it waited some time to be chosen as my next read, I reckon I am fully rewarded. The story of an American Baptist missionary family that find themselves in Congo just before it gains its independence is superb. Five narrators of different ages telling different stories add to the incredible atmosphere of colonial Congo and I'm enjoying both the stories and the language, witty at times. The book is definitely food for thought regarding bringing christianity to non-Christians in those days, moreover, the culture clash problems described gives you a good insight into how to understand people whose mentality and reactions to the world around are different from yours. This novel will definitely stay in my memory for a long, long time ...
When I first started reading this I was honestly confused as to what was happening. And the plot wasn't what I was expecting, I wasn't sure exactly what I was expecting but it wasn't a story about a missionary to the Congo. I was pleasantly surprised though and eventually ended up getting really into the book when I got about a third of the way through, so much so that I was reading it while I was supposed to be working, hopefully my supervisor didn't notice I was MIA. I did think that the book was slow at times and dragged on, especially towards the end. And it was kind of funny that the ending felt . It was kind of hard at times to sit through the book because I kept wanting their dad to just die or fuck off honestly, but I think that indicates that the book did a pretty good job getting me emotionally invested.
I read "The Poisonwood Bible" for two reasons: Because I've always wanted to read a Barbara Kingsolver book and I am intrigued by secular takes on Christianity in modern-day writings.
I just finished it today. It is the story of a missionary family's trek to the Congo, told through the eyes of the four daughters and their mother. The father is a misguided preacher who is trying to escape past demons by force-feeding Christ to a culture that he has neither researched nor desires to understand (the name of the book is a reference to his misuse of the native language -- so instead of calling the Bible something holy, he's referring to it as a poisonous tree).
All in all, I am glad I read the book -- the discussion of the Congo's tumultuous history and the commentary on how the United States and various European nations have tried and failed to control something so wild and free was very interesting. It is a theme I saw repeatedly play out in this book -- when people/nations are unwilling to take the time to understand where others are coming from (be it individuals or people groups), the result is long-running anguish, regret and the destruction of lives and families. The writing can be very good -- the death of one of the daughters (which is disclosed early in the novel, although she is not identified) had me literally weeping over this book.
That all said. There were parts of the book that dragged for me -- and the whole catalyst for why these four girls and their mother were transplanted to Africa (a highly controlling husband/father) was never completely resolved to my satisfaction (he sort of disappears in to the jungle halfway through the book, never to return).
From a Christian standpoint, I was also disappointed in how missionaries were generally portrayed -- self-seeking, greedy and Bible-thumping morons who were either frothing at the mouth or couldn't get out of the country fast enough when the going got tough. There were also doctrinal errors (I spent several years as a Baptist and I never attended a church that believed baptism was a necessary ticket in to heaven -- quite the contrary, actually).
It would have been a fascinating foil to have a truly Christ-focused, God-seeking missionary family in these people's midsts ... while I appreciate how the only "good" missionary in this book didn't completely reject God, his buffet-style approach to what he accepted/discarded about the Bible was disturbing. Yet it was clearly held up as the preferred example for the rest of characters in the book.
This was a fantastic read full of poetry and beautiful prose about the crumbling of a Christian missionary family in the Congo in the late 50's/early 60s. The Price family - a rigid, fundamentalist preacher, his wife, and their four daughters - arrive from Bethlehem, GA in a village in Congo and are faced with the emptiness of their beliefs against the fullness of the life of the Congolese around them. The daughters are all quite different: Rachel, the older beauty, who is in denial of the inadequacy of her moral code and social aspirations among the vines, spiders, and mud; Lea and Adah, the twins, both brilliant in their own ways but Lea being skeptical and healthy whereas Adah is physically impaired and willingly mute; and the baby Ruth-May who is the first one to make a social bond with the kids of the village. As the situation in Congo deteriorates (the horrific Belgian colonial government yielding to a democratically elected Patrice Lumumba who is assassinated with help of the CIA and replaced by the corrupt and violent Mobutu), the family disintegrates. They face famine, flood, ant invasions, and social rejection as their lives unravel.
One of the themes of the book is language - Kingsolver, in an appendix after the book, says that she had a small team of linguists to ensure that her use of Kingala dialect was as accurate as possible. The Bible is, naturally, crucial to the story, but the point is made how interpretation and translation are so critical to the meaning of certain passages. Similarly, the words of Nathan Price's sermons are necessarily translated for the villagers by the helpful Achille, and we learn that the word for "the Lord" is the same word for poisonwood, a tree that causes severe skin rashes - this the title of the book and the confusion of the villagers whom to Nathan's dismay, end up voting Jesus out of their village in an election during a church service. It is a really interesting book!
The story is told with gorgeous descriptions in the voices of all five women characters. The reader is carried along with the catastrophic events and the aftermath as each survivor goes on a different path at the end. One of them rests glued to the past, two of them try to guard some degree of optimism for the future, and one accepts her station and shows little evolution of her colonial mindset. I won't spoil anything for you because you really should take the time to enjoy it yourself.
This book lost out in 1999 to The Hours for the Pulitzer Prize. I can't quite remember that book, I'll need to re-read it, but I think that the imagery and prose of The Poisonwood Bible was probably more deserving of the prize that year.
3 stars !....This book had moments of perfection in its poetic prose (5 star quality) to sections of the most horrible chick-lit (1.5 star quality).
The narrative of the Congo was fascinating both historically and anthropologically. At times I felt connected to the collective unconscious.
The individual voices of the Price girls and even less so the Price women (when they grew up)did not ring true and I feel strongly that this book would have been much more powerful written in the third person.
I am perplexed that a book that at times reached the pinnacle of literary wonder could rapidly deteriorate to trite vacuous melodrama.
I am certainly glad that I finally read this novel and am open to trying another novel by this author as when it was good it soared.
This book really made me think about why we adopt certain beliefs: what comes from the environment we are immersed in vs. what comes from within. I loved how Kingsolver shows the world view of an entire family who is experiencing the same basic situations in the Congo, but each member deals with these things very differently. It also brings up issues with culture differences and the obstacles in trying to persuade a culture to change. It poses the question of should they change, is the American culture superior, is Christianity superior, is democracy superior, is wealth superior to poverty? Each character answers these questions differently. How our actions or inactions affect other people is another commentary this novel addresses. The story brings up ethical issues that arise in getting involved with other countries: do we do it because we believe we are superior or to exploit their resources or to sincerely try to help other people have a better life? Lots of interesting things to think about in this book. Here is the synopsis from Amazon.com: 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 a fascinating story of Nathan Price, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.
The story is related through the wife and four daughters. Through controversial storytelling, they reveal how their mission actually reshaped their beliefs. However, it doesn’t develop the perspective of the father, and I can see how some who take his side might have some issues with this storytelling, especially when it deals with Christianity. The women connect with native people. The father struggles with that. He simply preaches, basing his beliefs strictly on the Bible.
The story is very rich in historical background. The characters are richly developed. It evokes human emotions. However, some may not like its representation, which is driven by one side.
This story has resonated with many. I’m in the minority with my rating. This book has everything I’d look for in a story. However, I found the pace slow. My rating is not based on debatable subject, but the pace. Also, the first half of the book has a better flow than the second half.