Title: The Poisonwood Bible
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction
Publisher: Harper Flamingo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
Number of pages: 543
First line: Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
Goodreads blurb: 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.
I freely admit that I was dreading this month’s challenge read-along. The Poisonwood Bible seems to be universally beloved in the book blogging world – in the bookish world at large, really – and yet when I tried to read it ten or so years ago, I couldn’t make it past page 50. Looking back, I’m not sure exactly why. I am wondering if I was at a place in my faith where I didn’t want to read a book that portrayed Christians in a negative light. I have lived in my faith a lot longer now, and while my personal faith is strong enough to take criticism, I also am realistic about the state of the Christian church, and the fact that many people who claim to be Christians are anything but. Maybe that was the reason, maybe not – either way, I was instantly drawn into Barbara Kingsolver’s world this time around, and found it to be the wonderful read everyone says it is.
The best thing about this book is the way the story is told. Although Nathan Price, Baptist missionary, is a central figure in the novel – and the catalyst for the direction of the entire story – we discover him and the Congo through the eyes of his wife and four daughters. This would have been a very different story if it had been set in a later time period, but in the early 60s, and especially in the evangelical church, women went where their husbands went, did what their husbands commanded – and that is the experience of Orleanna, Nathan’s wife. She is ripped away from her nation, and dragged to a mission in the Congo, a mission that isn’t even sanctioned by the Baptist authorities in the US. That means limited resources and support from home. My heart went out to Orleanna, and at the same time I was so very frustrated with her. I know that I viewed her through the eyes of modern woman, and I kept thinking, “There’s no way! I’d do whatever I had to do to get my children out of there!” But in her world, in her place in time, her options were very different, and her mindset was very different.
Nathan is an interesting character, and very unsympathetic, although I think the author tried to build some sympathy for him by bringing his war experiences into the story, but he was just plain despicable. His blatant arrogance kept him from even seeing the Congolese as people, and his refusal to acknowledge their customs, culture, and beliefs kept him from being any help to them at all. I was glad that we finally met his predecessor in the mission, Brother Fowles, whose loving Christianity was a stark contrast to Price’s hate-filled ranting.
The daughters are all so different, with Leah definitely being my favorite character. She had the biggest transformation through the course of the novel, I think. She initially wanted her father’s approval and love so badly that she completely bought into his mission and methods. But the longer she lived in the Congo, the more she realized his ignorance and arrogance, and came to love the Congo – and a Congolese man – on her own terms.
Each of the girls – Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May – are changed profoundly by their experience in Africa. I can’t say that I absolutely loved the ending, as this is not a very hopeful book. It is, however, a realistic book, and I believe that each character’s story came to its inevitable conclusion, based on what had come before.
I am very glad I decided to give this book another try, and am now intrigued to explore some of Kingsolver’s other work.
Did any of you read along with me this month? Or did you read this in the past and have some thoughts to add? Please link your reviews below and join in the discussion in the comments section.