Publisher: HarperCollins (Harper Perennial)
Pub date: 1998
Source: Personal copy
The Poisonwood Bible made me angry, sad, frustrated and depressed and I loved it! That is not too much of a surprise since the book is very well-known and the author very accomplished. Reading it at a time much later than when the book came into the public eye also meant that I could read objectively and without any specific expectations or bias.
Baptist preacher Nathan Price drags along his reluctant family from Georgia all the way to the Congo. His mission is to bring Christianity to the savage natives and deliver them into the Lord’s hands. He is a strict dictator-like husband and father, small suffering of anyone in his family opposing his word and his interpretation of the Bible.
The story is told from the point of view of the five women: Orleanna and her daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May.
Not only does Nathan not make much headway with bringing the word of God to the people of Kilanga, his relationship with his family deteriorates. He stubbornly refuses to accept that his place is not in the Congo (the Baptist Mission revokes their mission). He also refuses to see that his whole family is in danger.
The people of Kilanga don’t have any need for a new religion but they are willing to give Nathan a listen. They don’t want to anger their own gods who have protected them all these years.
While preaching to the people in the little church in the village, Nathan, in an attempt to reach his congregation tries to speak in Kilanga. He shouts: “Tata Jesus is bangala” trying to convey that Jesus is precious. But his pronunciation leads him to say Jesus is poisonwood, causing more confusion. (Poisonwood is a poisonous African plant that causes a rash if you touch it.)
Orleanna and her daughters take turns to tell us the story and this is where I became aware of Kingsolver’s brilliance. Initially I had trouble keeping track of the different daughters but once I got into it, it’s easy to recognize them from the distinct voice that each of their narratives has.
Rachel, who is 15 at the beginning of the novel is a typical teenager and completely selfish and self absorbed. But as the story went on, I was forced to admire her, grudgingly.
Leah and Adah, 14 are twins.
Leah is smart and independent. At the start of the story, she tries very hard to win the approval of her father and be the perfect daughter. As time goes on, she comes to see him differently and their points of view diverge very far.
Adah is hemiplegic. She is brilliant, but does not talk. Her inner dialogue is rich and sad, and had me in tears more than once.
Ruth May is the baby. She makes friends with the other children in the village and finds a place in the hearts of the women and children.
The portrayal of the life and hardships of the people of Congo at this point in time is just heart-breaking. Political upheavals make an already challenging life all the more difficult.
The difficulties in the lives of the Prices forms a parallel to the challenges that the people of Kilanga face. The people are used to having to evacuate their villages to escape from flesh eating ants who devour entire animals. But with the new government and the changes in leadership, political plots and assassinations are also added into the mix.
What is really heartbreaking is that while the details have changed, the situation in the Congo is still difficult. The people and the land have been abused for many years by greedy governments and this exploitation is still a bleak reality of the region.
Against this tumultuous backdrop the Price family tries to grow and survive – each finding her own way to do it. And what of Nathan Price? I honestly stopped caring at a point, but felt a glimmer, the palest glimmer of sympathy on understanding why he was the way he was. Stuck in his stubbornness, giving up was not an option for him no matter the price (pun unintended) he or his family had to pay.
The story follows the lives of the families over 30 years. Each of the women finds a different way to deal with the difficulties and horror they have seen and makes her own choice about how she wants to live her life.
My review here does not do justice to the brilliance and depth of this book. All I can say is – Highly recommended. Read it.
Anyone who enjoys literary fiction, is interested in character study or has some interest in Africa – history and present, specifically the Congo, should not miss reading The Poisonwood Bible. This is one of those powerful books that will stay with me…
Rating: 5 *
*See my Rating policy
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