The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver, A Well-Written Story of A Missionary Family in the Congo

Rating: 3.7 (3.7)

I promised, like three years ago, to Jessie that I would read something by Barbara Kingsolver, who she says is one of her favorite writers. So, true to my (procrastinating) word, I finally got around to and finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver earlier today.

I’ve been trying to mix it up in my reading repertoire terms of genres. The Poisonwood Bible was more on the serious side of drama. For the most part it’s set in the Congo during its short-lived bid for independence from Belgium. However, the story actually spans three decades and is told through the wife and four daughters of a zealous preacher, Nathan Price, who move to a small village there, Kilanga, to do missionary work. As one expects with these sorts of fish-out-of-water-type premises, it changes them more than they change it. However, it’s well written and thought-provoking in other ways, though it is clearly bent on challenging certain Westernized, I guess, attitudes for lack of a better word (the author doesn’t use such terminology, thank goodness) and on criticizing the U.S. and other foreign involvement in the economic and political affairs in the Congo.

While most of the story focuses on the difficulties of the Price family, the political/social message comes through in bits and pieces and finally comes to light more fully as they are forced to flee. In short, Belgium colonized the place and essentially handicapped the country (by not allowing non-whites to get an education, not building infrastructure, etc.). After the people rose up and demanded their independence, President Eisenhower, in cahoots with other foreign leaders, gave orders to have the elected leader of Congo assassinated because these leaders of white men were unhappy with the negotiations regarding the sale of the country’s natural resources (diamonds, in particular). They fixed the following election to have him replaced with a puppet figure instead and corruption ensued (the U.S. began building a power system in Congo they knew would fail in order to saddle the country with billions in debt, ensuring that the flow of resources would be unhindered in the future). There are also non-politically geared messages in the book as well — about people, human nature, etc.

Overall, I liked many parts of book. For example, one of the daughters, Adah, is has a lame leg and her mother chooses to save another childed, one who is not “crooked” like her, over her when a natural disaster occurs. While Adah manages to survive, she recalls wanted to be saved and feels confusion that others, her mother included, would deem her undeserving of being saved. In Adah’s voice, Kingsolver writes that “even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious. That is what it means to be a beast in the kingdom.”

However, my gripe was that the book lacked a certain subtlety or sense of balance when it came to getting its message across and to depicting certain characters. Kingsolver’s characterization of Rachael as some vapid self-centered blond seemed kind of unfair. In fact, all behaviors of the characters that were native to Congo tended to be forgiving and understanding and behaviors that were used to characterize those from the U.S. took on a more judgmental tone — they were excessive, uncaring, etc. Her attitude seemed to be that the behaviors of those in Africa are simply products of their environment and that in the U.S. and Europe it’s just the result of arrogance and ignorance. For example, people that look out for themselves there do it to survive, people here are simply self-centered — which may be true, to some extent, but I think, more likely, that all people are capable of a wide gamut of behaviors, kind or unkind as they may be, and that certain environmental, social, economic and political circumstances can diminish or enhance those behaviors at time. (As a side note, I think that as a society our goal should be to create a infrastructure, legal and otherwise, to bring out and incentivize the good in people, though obviously it’s not a straight-forward task.)

Another display of the author’s at times judgmental and unbalanced attitude becomes clear through the villain, of sorts, of the story. The novel paints an extremely unflattering portrait of Nathan Price, an immovable and damaged man, set in his ways to his and others’ detriment — obviously not meant to be a sympathetic character. Fair enough, sometimes people end up sucking and end up in situations where their suckiness come shining through. In an addendum, however, the author mentions that she’s been on the receiving end of numerous letters who feel this is anti-missionary/anti-Christian and states that these people don’t understand literary symbolism and probably don’t read enough novels. Now, even as I was reading it I, despite not being Christian, felt that it was uncharitable in not presenting a balanced picture of the positive intentions and contributions that I am sure resulted from the work, but it seemed to be an error of omission and information that admittedly wouldn’t contribute to any of the points she was trying to get across, so fine. However, assuming that any detractors are simply ignorant is a pretty bold and judgmental assumption.

For a book that is clearly well written, well researched and with such strong messages, I think it tripped itself up by being needlessly polarizing. I think I would have liked it better if it had just been in one voice instead of pretending to be something it’s not. In some ways it came off as disingenuous — the book claims to be in perspective of five different characters, but in the end I could only find the author’s voice. I guess I liked many parts of the book, but came off disliking the author. Hmm.