A couple weeks ago, I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I had been asked by Mrs. Sylvia to read it, as she was considering it as a summer reading novel for her upcoming 10th grade students. I accepted her request, borrowing her book so I could get started on it as soon as possible. That was about 4 months ago. Needless to say, I read it off and on for 2 months, and then stopped reading it all together. My complaint was not that it wasn't good, or even that it was un-enjoyable. It just seemed slightly pointless? The story appeared to be going nowhere, and it was simply 5 girls telling a story that seemed to have no purpose. By the time I had come to this conclusion, I was on page 150 or so. One weekend, I decided I would try again. It turns out that I had stopped a page too early; I could not put the book down. Something had happened in one page, and it suddenly all made sense. I became emotionally attached to the characters--feeling Ruth May's pain when she fell from a tree and broke her arm, sensing Leah's mature but girlish attraction to Anatole, picturing Rachel's eyes wander to her little cosmetic mirror every possible chance she got, dragging my left side behind me in my sleep and understanding Adah's struggle through life. It was as if I was living in the Congo with the Price family. It ended much too quickly, and I will sit alone sometimes and imagine how Adah is managing in nursing school, or decide what Leah is doing inside her little African hut.
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, the eldest, Leah and Adah, the twins, and Ruth May, the baby. But, really, it is not Nathan's story. It's the girls' story. Interestingly, each chapter is written in first person by a different daughter, and the opening to each "Book" is written in first person by Orleanna. Nathan does not have his own chapter, his own say, or his own voice in the novel. All that we know of Nathan is what the girls tell us. Their accounts of his discipline methods ("The Verse," in which he would make them start with a specific verse in the Bible and write the next 100 verses that followed it until they ended up at the verse which rebuked and corrected their sinful action), their memories of his temper toward those who disagreed with his evangelism methods, and his holier-than-thou attitude toward everyone, even God Himself. Nathan Price picked up his family from Georgia one day and moved them all to the African Congo, where he had a vision and a plan to convert the tribes to Jesus. There was a fault in this vision: it was all about him. He was so determined to fix the people, to change them, and to make them a certain way that he forgot to allow God to be the ultimate "fixer". And rather than converting the Africans, he deverted his family. They were drawn away from God and the church; because all that they had known of it was their father, and all they had seen of it was the destruction of Nathan and their family. He made himself like a god to them; they were afraid of him, they desired (specifically Leah) to please him, they loved him while simultaneously hating him.
All in all, Nathan's mission failed. He didn't change a single African's life. Sure, when they were praying to their gods and their children were still dying, they would run to Tata Price's God, hoping He would save their children. When their children continued to die, they went back to their beads and stone. God was nothing more than another god to them. Rather than making this fact clear to them, and allowing God to work in their lives, Nathan continued to press and condemn them for their evil (as if he was infallible himself). Not only did Nathan not change a single African's life, but he completely ruined his wife and daughters' lives. Any faith they had had in Jesus before they went to Africa had been eaten away by the killer ants that swept through their village. If this was what God was, they wanted nothing to do with it. If Father was God's definition of a good man, they wanted to find a bad one. Nathan didn't teach about God. He taught about himself; he taught about his selfish desire to fix everything, darnet, if it was the last thing he did. It was the death of him and of his family. He was so concerned about fixing everything, and everyone else, and making everything the way he saw fit that he was blind to what was really occuring. His family was turning away to an eternity of hell, as was his "beloved Congo" and he had all of their blood on his shoulders.
The girls move on with their lives after the year and half they spent in mosquito netting and mud piles; but they are eternally effected. They lack personal relationships with Jesus Christ. They lack the knowledge and confident belief and comfort of the Father God. All they know is Father Nathan; and Father Nathan believed in God, and look where it got him? Nathan destroyed his family with his selfish intent and his stupid desire to fix other people--and the confidence that he could do it himself.
This book encapsulates the esesence of humans today. We are control freaks. We want things particular ways, and we are determined to make it happen. We forget, though, that God has to be in control of these wants and desires, or all that will be produced is an overwhelming amount of destruction.
Have a wonderful week, everyone.
Well, it's not really side note because it pertains to the above. But, I am posting Barnes and Noble's wonderful review of Poisonwood below:
Barbara Kingsolver calls her new novel, The Poisonwood Bible, her "magnum opus." And it is—500-plus pages of "the deepest-delving" fiction she's ever written, not to mention a fresh new locale. Packed with themes of cultural diversity, political morality, and environmental ethics, this one, unlike her three previous Southwestern novels, is set in postcolonial Africa. The narrative begins in the relatively tame Belgian Congo of the late 1950s, gains speed in the tumultuous early '60s (with the coup of the independent Lumumba government toppled by the CIA-backed, UN-funded Mobutu government), then branches out several decades in the future. "I set out to ask a very long question," Kingsolver says. "What have we done as a nation, a culture, a people to Africa, and where do we go from here?"
Kingsolver has been waiting her entire life to write this novel. When she was seven years old, her mother and father, both public health officials, moved their family to the Congo for several years. She laughs and says, "I'm happy to say my parents are wonderful people, not at all like the family in the book." There they practiced their medicine while young Barbara kept a journal. She explains the impact: "Living in that part of the world during the formative years of my childhood introduced me to the possibility that everything I had always assumed was right could be totally wrong in another place." Although the story is in no way about her personal familial experience, much of the setting and detail are torn from the pages of that journal. That's not to say she didn't do a heapofresearch; there's an extensive bibliography included at the end of the novel. She also made a number of trips back to Africa and had many experts comment on the manuscript, including the activist, journalist, convicted murderer, and cause célèbre Mumia Abu-Jamal, who gave it the thumbs-up from his cell in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary.
The Poisonwood Bible is the saga of the Price family, a rural Georgia family wrestling with inner demons while living in the small African village of Kilanga. It revolves around Nathan Price, an abusive southern Baptist evangelical minister who forsakes his family on his quest to save the souls of the natives. What begins as a church-sanctioned mission ends in a dangerous battle of wills that separates the Price family forever. The action is filtered primarily through Nathan's four daughters, à la As I Lay Dying, with future-time flashbacks from the mother's point of view. It's through the girls that we learn about Nathan's proclivity toward physical and mental abuse, his lack of fear regarding growing political unrest, and his stubborn insistence that the villagers be baptized in crocodile-infested waters. And through their mother, Orleanna, we find out why Nathan lives with such a heavy and hurtful God-fearing heart: In World War II his entire company died during the Bataan Death March. Although Nathan was honorably discharged, survivor's guilt led him to the jungles of Africa and did not permit him to retreat, no matter what the cost. The price of this intractable attitude is disease, death, and madness.
The novel's post-Congo years, which describe what the Price women do with their lives after the 17 months in the bush, are slightly anticlimactic, but the first 400 pages of this book are stunning and historically accurate to boot. Two scenes in particular are extraordinarily vivid and powerful. The first is a depiction of the biannual migration of ants, a literal sea of ants eating its way across Africa. Kingsolver has seen this natural phenomenon firsthand. "It's thought of as a cleansing. You try to remember the baby and the chickens and let the ants go on about purifying the country." The second happens the day the villagers, plagued by starvation, set fire to the high grass to burn out game. Kingsolver has the ability, in a beautifully painful sort of way, to make these scenes come alive with a single sentence: "Birds hit the wall of fire and lit like bottle rockets."
Although Kingsolver does as few media appearances as she can and ignores media hype with "every molecule" of her being, she has once again consented to do a multicity book tour for her new novel. "I was raised Southern," she says. "It's almost not in me to disappoint people. But what's most important to me is being a mother, a writer, and a responsible member of the community in which I live. The other stuff is incidental. Somehow our culture has dragged authors into this celebrity scene, and it's a place where we really don't belong. I have more to offer if I stay at home and write another book."
The Poisonwood Bible is certainly Kingsolver's most daring and quite possibly her most engaging and provocative outing yet. And if staying at home means another book like it, well, surely the world will survive with one less book tour.
Nelson Taylor is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for Time Out, Paper, Bikini, Bomb, and Salon.