The Poisonwood Bible book review
There is something refreshingly old-fashioned about this, Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling tale of an evangelical minister who takes his family to the Republic of Congo in 1959, just as the country is on the verge of putting an end to colonial rule. The story is told in a series of interior monologues, a style pioneered by Wilkie Collins in the 19th century and later employed by William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves). There are five speakers in The Poisonwood Bible, each with a strong, unique manner of speaking and looking at the world. We have the minister’s wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. The minister himself never speaks directly to the reader but his voice is heard – loud, clear, and fanatical – throughout the book.
Nathan Price is a former soldier whose World War Two experiences have left him with a deep sense of guilt and a fiery determination to be an instrument of the Lord, whatever the cost. He takes his family from their home in Georgia to Kilanga, a remote village in the Congo, where he plans to “save the heathens” (my quotes) by baptizing them in the Kwilu River. His blinkered view, both of Christianity and of the citizens of Africa, prevents him from ever learning anything important about people he’s trying to save. While he’s pushing baptism, we learn that the villagers’ refusal to take part in this watery ritual is because the river is home to crocodiles; one young girl fell in and was killed. The people believe the minister plans to sacrifice them all.
The book is divided into seven sections; the first five begin with a monologue by Orleanna from her home on Sanderling Island, Georgia, where she has settled after leaving her husband and most of her family in Africa. Orleanna has tried, in her way, to be a good wife and mother. Being a good wife, however, has meant sacrificing herself and her children to the grim wilfulness of a man who could probably never love her: “It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind”.
Rachel, the oldest daughter, is 16 when the book opens. Blonde, pretty, and exasperatingly shallow, she hates everything about Africa and learns nothing from the Congolese. Given to malapropisms, she says she misses deodorant and flush toilets and “other simple things in life I have took for granite”. Of all the characters in this book, Rachel is the one who doesn’t change. By the end of the novel, having married and divorced several times, Rachel remains as self-centred and shallow as the day she set foot in the jungle. So what does it say about me that I found her monologues some of the most engaging pieces in the book? Whatever else you can say about Rachel, she’s not trying to convert anybody. And she probably comes closest to representing the white population of Africa at the time, or a certain segment of it, at any rate.
Fourteen-year-old Lean and Adah, the twins, are next in line. Leah is as idealistic as her father and tries desperately to win him over by following in his footsteps. She helps him plant a garden with seeds brought from home, against the advice of their housekeeper, Mama Tataba, who warns them that the seeds will be washed away the next time it rains. She also tells him not to touch the roots of the poisonwood tree, as it will hurt him. Nathan ignores her advice, and wakes up the next morning with a painful rash on his hands, arm, and eye. When the heavy rains wash out his garden, he replants it in the manner Mama Tataba originally suggested; this time the seeds sprout but fail to flourish. The insects needed to pollinate those plants don’t exist in this part of the world.
Gradually, over time, Leah’s faith in her father and his God begins to falter, especially once she comes to know and love Anatole Ngemba, the schoolteacher who acts as an interpreter for her father’s sermons. Through Anatole, Leah is given a glimpse into the real lives of the Congolese, and learns about the move towards independence. The following year the people hold an election and Patrice Lumumba, a former postal worker, becomes the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo. Nathan takes Leah with him to Léopoldville to attend the independence ceremonies where they’re joined by the Underdowns, the couple who run the Mission League that pays Nathan a small salary. The Underdowns are planning to leave the Congo and are shocked that Nathan is insisting on staying on. They try to explain to him that staying will not only be dangerous but will mean doing without the monthly stipend they’ve been receiving. Nathan, however, is adamant: he and his family are not about to run away like cowards. There are still many souls that need saving.
Adah, the other twin, is as intelligent as her sister but unable to express it. She was damaged while still in the womb and is unable – or unwilling – to speak. She also walks with a limp, dragging her right foot. Her unique situation in the family has supplied her with a cynical outlook, and a gift for seeing the world in unusual ways. When she finishes reading a book front to back, she then reads it back to front. “It is a different book, back to front, and you can learn new things from it”. She delights in palindromes: Evil, all its sin is still alive! Her own name, as she thinks of it, is Ecirp Nelle Hada. She, along with her mother, are the only two members of the Price family who make it back to the States. There, inspired by what she experienced in Africa, she devotes herself to the study of viruses. She submits to a colleague’s research project and learns to walk and speak like others. And she stays close to her mother.
At five, Ruth May is the baby of the family. She’s also fearless, which leads her to fall out of a tree and break her arm at one point. She recovers, but falls ill with malaria when she refuses to swallow the quinine pills her mother dishes out. Eventually, she’s bitten by a green mamba snake left in the chicken house by the village medicine man. The child dies instantly, leaving her mother to grieve and berate herself for not following the Underdowns out of Africa.
While Kingsolver claims she never writes autobiography, The Poisonwood Bible has its seeds in something she personally experienced when she was a child. Her father was a doctor and when she was seven she accompanied her parents to Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, Zaire. As she says in her introduction, “I was the fortunate chid of medical and public health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo”. There they lived as villagers, without electricity, running water, or automobiles, while her parents offered their services “in support of a newly independent African democracy”. It was years later that she, and the rest of the world, learned of the sinister forces that worked undercover to snatch independence from the people of the Congo. Thanks to the CIA, with the support of several Western governments, Lumumba was deposed and the puppet tyrant, Colonel Mobutu, put in his place. For 30 years, Mobutu oversaw a corrupt, totalitarian regime that bilked the country of billions of dollars and gave birth to the term kleptocracy.
It’s given to Ruth May to grasp, through her death, the essence of the Congolese term muntu, which makes “no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods”. It’s simply the life force, eternal and unbreakable. I forgive you, she tells her mother in the final chapter of the book. Forgive yourself. Move on. Walk forward into the light.
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