The drama of a U.S. missionary family in Africa during a war of decolonization. At its center is Nathan Price, a self-righteous Baptist minister who establishes a mission in a village in 1959 Belgian Congo. The resulting clash of cultures is seen through the eyes of his wife and his four daughters.
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a man who survived WWII, when everyone else in his company didn't. He, and his government, decided his actions had been cowardly and he swore to never show cowardice again. He created his own image of God who was constantly watching him for the slightest sign of weakness. And he defined his own brand of bravery and weakness. The strength it takes to love and provide for and protect a family, a wife and 4 daughters, was not in his vocabulary. To him, bravery had to be something bigger and bolder. He dragged them all to the Congo in 1959 to spend a year enlightening the poor heathens living such primitive lives in Africa.
Being brave meant he could not reveal that he did not know everything. He never asked questions or listened to advice. He would force the facts, and the environment, and the words of the foreign languages to meet his expectations. He demanded perfection but expected failure from the weaker vessels in his life, never appreciating their strength or accomplishments, only seeing where they did not live up to his demands.
His story is paralleled by that of the United States watching the Congolese push for independence from a Belgium that had oppressed and robbed them for so long. The US and much of the rest of the world insisted they do it the "right" way and elect. But then, the Congolese elected a man the US didn't like or trust, because he wouldn't obey them in all things. The US proceeded to step in and redo things to make them "right".
The story is actually told from the perspective of the wife and 4 daughters, passing from one voice to another with each chapter. We see their thoughts and actions based on their love and faith in the father, or, later, their lack of love and faith in him. We see 5 lives irrevocably changed by his behavior, by his lack of grace and mercy. They each respond to the inevitable change in their own way, while watching their father refuse to admit change occurs. We also see a glimpse of a continent with a physical and spiritual environment that cannot support the exact same methods used in the US, no matter how hard we try to force our ways on it.
I struggled some with this book, but it was worth the reading. I struggled for the cruel, pitiless, and misguided religion of the father, and the resistance to become familiar with another culture before passing judgment on it (and finding it lacking).
But before I get into all that, here is a little plot synopsis. I've often referred to this novel as the white people's version of Things Fall Apart, a novel by Chinua Achebe. In 1959, an American family from Georgia moves to the Belgian Congo to do missionary work. The father, Nathan Price, is a very religious Baptist who uses the Bible to punish his children. The mother, Orleanna, is a woman who has lost herself to her family. In a chapter near the end, she says that she has been conquered by her husband and his dream. There are four daughters. The oldest, Rachel, is a wannabe beauty queen who remains amazingly ignorant and naive all through her life, no matter what happens to her. Leah, the second oldest, is strong and vulnerable at the same time. She wants to please, but she resents the people she most wants to please sometimes. Adah, Leah's twin and my favorite character, is a strange, mostly silent commentator on the situation. To use Emily Dickenson's words, as Adah does, she tells the truth, "but tells it slant." Ruth May, the youngest, is so young that it's hard for me to get a fix on her. But she is a critical character. You're going to have to take my word for it because if I tell you more, I'll give away important parts of the plot.
The Price family is assigned to the small village of Kilanga. Things go from bad to worse and Nathan tries to force his religion onto the villagers and his family. The family endures famine, revolution, disease, and death. Sounds kind of plot heavy, doesn't it? But there is an amazing emotional depth to this book. It will make you laugh and it might make you cry. It will probably make you angry. Like all good book, The Poisonwood Bible will give you a lot to think about after you're finished.
This time, when I read the book, two things have stuck with me, as I've said. The first issue is the one of cultural understanding. Linguistic understanding kind of falls under things. But one of the things that starts the downward spiral of this book is the fact that the Price family can't ever really understand the people of the Congo or the land. This books is full of not only mistranslations, but culture clashes. Though Adah, Leah, and Ruth May do make efforts to join in village life, they keep hitting obstacles when they discover a cultural idea or custom that they just can't understand. Rachel and Nathan just barrel through the book, trying to reshape things without even bothering to learn about the other cultures around them. The second things that struck me is the nature of forgiveness. Guilt and forgiveness and atonement are big issues in ths book, and one of the great things about this book is that you get to see the whole life cycle of forgiveness and how the different characters deal with wrongs.
Another thing that I really like about this book is the way it's written. Each of the female Prices has their own say. And Kingsolver manages to write in five different voices in such a way that each character is distinct and realistic. They don't blur into one voice as I thought they might as the novel got longer. In addition, the way Kingsolver writes is just amazing. There are genuinely moving passages in this novel, especially in Orleanna and Adah's narratives. This is a beautiful book.
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a family that travels from the USA to what was then called the Congo to do missionary work in a small isolated village. Their father is somewhat unstable, in fact he had to pretty much bully his way into the position, they did not want to send him.
The story is broken up into short snippets and told from the point of view of the mother and each of the daughters as they grow up in the Congo. When I started reading this book it was the first phrase in the second section that really caught my attention and drew me into this book:
“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle”. One theme I see in this book is just how unprepared they were, how ready they were to believe that their way of life could be transplanted to the jungle. They were there to save the blind/lost, but time and time again the community had to save them as they were simply so unprepared. Unprepared and unwilling (able?) to adapt. There is the story of how the father packed a hammer to bring with him, only to find that nothing in their village was built using nails. Trying to insist on baptizing children in alligator infested waters is another example. Told from largely the point of view of the daughters you can see both the humour and hubris in the situation.
Then there was a revolution in the Congo (After the US government assassinated their elected leader) and the missionaries were asked to return to the USA. Their father refused to let them return. We see his decline as well as the decline of the country.
I loved the tone of this book. Being told from the point of view of the children kept it from being to dark. It was also a very personal tone. If you have read [The Book of Negroes] and have been looking for a book with a similar tone I highly recommend [The Poisonwood Bible].
It is the type of book that sticks with you. If you have had the experience of completing a book and yet going back a few weeks later to read the first few chapters again simply to re-immerse yourself in / get the feel of the book again then you know what I mean. It is that kind of book. No need to be intimidated. Highly recommended. 5 stars.
The book moves makes slow, and again painful, progress until the village where the Prices live is attacked by army ants. After that it becomes a page-turner. Also keeping the reader's attention is the depiction of Congolese politics and history.
Kingsolver masterfully portrays each of her five female narrators, giving each a unique voice and perspective of events experienced by the Price family. There are no Congolese narrators.
The ending of the book is more gentle than the whole rest of the story, which seems to communicate that only the dead can experience or give true forgivenss.
Of all the characters, Adah Price, the twin sister with hemiplegia was my favorite. She lived so internally because of her condition and she used her brain to play with language. That use of language wasn't just for her own amusement. It added a dimension to their lives and to the Congo that brought me there so easily.
I hated Nathan Price. I feel somewhat judgmental saying that as he had no voice in the novel. Still, what he did - or more often didn't do - to and for his family while they were in the Congo so that he could answer to his calling was appalling. He may have bullied his family, but he was a weak man who hid behind the Bible.
The only issue I had with The Poisonwood Bible was that it got somewhat preachy about Africa and the Western world. Although I believe those were the thoughts and feelings of the narrators, the actual story and their lives said that much more loudly than the narrator's opinions.
I cannot recommend this novel more highly. If you haven't read it yet, you really should. Not only is the story rich, but the writing is excellent. You will not be disappointed.
The Price Family...Father Nathan, Mother Orleanna, and their four daughters pack for their mission in the Congo trying to figure out what they should take...not knowing that most of the things they take will be useless and not knowing what is in store for them in terms of day-to-day living. While they are there, the country fights for its independence from Belgium.
Nathan Price is a very controlling, mean person....he treats his wife and his daughters like second-class citizens while he preaches to the people of the Congo. He is oblivious to what he is putting his family through. The family endures the hardships of a third world country while enduring the abuse from Nathan.
It was interesting to see how the people in the Congo live. I definitely wouldn't want to live there for even a day....no niceties of life at all. I know the book was about more than the family's living arrangements and treatment of them by Nathan Price, but that encompassed all of it for me. :)
I enjoyed the Price family...all except the father...the daughters made some life decisions that definitely had their father's influence.
The book is superbly written......you won't want to put it down. You also learn that your childhood and what you learn does follow you throughout your entire life, influences your decisions about career and spouse, and that you are like your parents no matter how much may not want to admit it.
A definite must read...it will haunt you long after you have completed the last page.
More than once the Price family indicated that Africa gets under one's skin. In fact, much like the Poisonwood tree that could be so lovely yet burn and smother one with its direct contact or through its burning transformation, so could the Congo where religions and politics clashed and could lead to death of spirit or body.
Even after Orleanna found a home in the States, she couldn't help but keep watch toward the continent that claimed her youngest child. Her three other girls embraced Africa - not with a great peace, but because it was under their skin. Adah, having returned to the U.S., learned to physically transform her body while succeeding in a lab relationship with viruses and bacteria native to her Africa.
Leah, Adah's twin, sought for so long to find approval from her father. She seemed to inhale all that was Africa - the plants, the stories and lore, the politics, economies, and Anatole. Africa wasn't always kind, but Leah respected the relationship and was strengthened in return.
Even Rachel, who most times appears shallow and ignorant, proved that she had mastered the theory in her guide book 'How to Survive 101 Calamities'. In order not to be trampled, hold your elbows out and let yourself be moved by the frantic motion of others. It'll keep you above the fray and you'll reach your destination with the least effort and damage. Who could blame Rachel? She survived the best she knew. She was willing to bear the cost of survival. How do we measure the cost? Is the act of surviving enough?
Africa transformed each Price family member. From Ruth Ann, the youngest, who chose to exit as quickly as she could. Nathan Price, the zealous, guilt-laden father drove his family away and himself into tortured depths darker than any jungle. The lore, the weather, the jungle creatures, the wisdom and acts of kindness - beauty and conflict. Much as Nathan Price, tormented by his demons, could not control his strong-minded daughters and wife, neither could he control anything around him. It's as if this tension strengthend his daughters and wife to break free from him and find their own transformative freedom in the very environment he tried to beat down.
Poisonwood Bible was one I could not put down - once a fifth of the way into it, I stayed up until 4am to finish it. Kingsolver gave me a gift of beauty and insight...Africa's flora and fauna; a reminder of its political flux and repercussions; and the recognition that humanity with its strength and spirit comes in all forms.
In the background is the tumultuous history of Africa, from being divided up by cruel conquerers to civil wars and phony elections for independence. Kingsolver cannot refrain from politicizing the novel, and her voice is loudly heard, sometimes loud enough to throw off the characters, as in the case of Oleanna in the middle of the novel. It is hard to argue the damage done by the colonists, however. Dealing with the aftermath spans two different extremes: from the cold acceptance of apartheid by Rachel, to the intense white guilt felt by Leah. Sometimes Kingsolver runs away with her politics and forgets the story, but thankfully, it is a strong enough tale that easily allows one to jump right back in.
Speaking of politics, Kingsolver hada strange note in the beginning of the book that almost put me off wanting to read it. In her acknowledgements page, she thanks Mumia Abu-Jamal for reading a copy of the novel she sent to him in prison and making notes on it. Abu-Jamal was tried and convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. I was puzzled why Kingsolver would contact such a person for approval. Granted, Abu-Jamal's cause has been taken up by many celebrities and idealistic college students, many of whom are unfamiliar with the details of the case, and claim Abu-Jamal was framed for the color of his skin. Whether you believe in Abu-Jamal's innocence or not, I felt this was a strange move on the author's part. This is also why I particularily believe that Kingsolver identifies most with the character of Leah, whose guilt makes her as much an "other" in her adopted homeland as her skin. It appears born out of Kingsolver's guilt in trying to understand racism performed by her race against Abu-Jamal's. For these heavy topics such as racism and dealing with the aftermath of the brutal slavery of Africa's people, there are no easy answers. Ultimately, this is what Kingsolver captures best, the shell-shocked after-effects of one country's influence on another's.
But while it is easy to throw stones at him, we realize as we read, that none of the characters in the book really understand one another, and that while the father's dysfunction is the most visible, they each have blind spots, and they each hide things (like pills under the bed). The father is just wide open with his faults. Everyone else hides them much better than he, but if I read Kingsolver right, she is not just attacking missions (although she does a good job of that). This book is not a polemic; it cuts much deeper than you think. (In fact, if you come away just hating the father, you might have missed the overall point of the book.)
The narration is from the point of view of the mother and the four girls, and the voices Kingsolver summons here are brilliant. The way they each speak is endearing, with southern expressions mixed with distinctive outlooks that evolve over the course of the book. The eldest daughter often slips a funny malapropism (or disturbing view of racial superiority), one of the twins takes a clear-eyed view of what’s happening around her as her disillusionment grows, and the other seems to see the world’s darker side through poetry and delightful palindromes.
The book is restrained and yet does not pull punches when it comes to America’s shameful, shameful actions in Congo to help overthrow a democratically elected leader (Patrice Lumumba) and install a corrupt autocrat (Mobutu Sese Seko), or Belgium’s before that (atrocities like cutting off worker’s hands, keeping the populace uneducated, and devoting all infrastructure to the precious mines only). Between greed, views of white supremacy, and using African countries as pawns in the Cold War, it’s not a pretty picture. It spurred me to read more about this and other places, e.g. Angola, and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.
It also examines Christians who attempt to convert the inhabitants of a poorer country without understanding it, and who do so without real love and empathy in their hearts. The father smugly believes that he is going the right thing that he fails to see his own hypocrisy, or what damage he does by hitting his wife and kids, or by ramming his interpretation of God down everyone’s throats. On the other hand, we also see the previous pastor, a man who sees God in the creation around him (without a middleman causing the message to get “lost in translation”), and who does good work. Most of all I suppose, the book is a challenge to the idea that any one religion or dogma has the absolute truth, and it’s got some interesting philosophical musings of its own.
I am the oldest sister and a typical teenage girl, oh-jeez-oh-man. All I want is to go back to Georgia and kiss boys outside the soda bar, but instead here I am stuck in the Congo with unconditioned hair and ants and caterpillars and scary-but-with-a-heart-of-gold black people. Jeez Louise, the life of a missionary's daughter. Also I make a whole lot of hilarious Malabarisms, that's just one of the tenants of my faith. There's two of them now! Man oh man.
The other day, Anatole rushed into our hut all excited about news from the wider world. ‘Great events are underway, Miss Price!’ he said. ‘Oh really?’ I asked, wondering if he would do for a love interest. ‘What's happening?’
Anatole took a deep breath. ‘Well, in the fallout from the Léopoldville riots, the report of a Belgian parliamentary working group on the future of the Congo was published in which a strong demand for "internal autonomy" was noted. August de Schryver, the Minister of the Colonies, launched a high-profile Round Table Conference in Brussels in January 1960, with the leaders of all the major Congolese parties in attendance. Lumumba, who had been arrested following riots in Stanleyville, was released in the run-up to the conference and headed the MNC-L delegation. The Belgian government had hoped for a period of at least 30 years before independence, but Congolese pressure at the conference led to 30 June 1960 being set as the date. Issues including federalism, ethnicity and the future role of Belgium in Congolese affairs were left unresolved after the delegates failed to reach agreement,’ he said.
‘Well I guess that's us brought up to date, then,’ I sighed. Anatole folded up his printout from Wikipedia and left the hut.
Sunrise unties blue skies clockwise. Pinot noir, caviar, mid-sized car, Roseanne Barr. I have a slightly deformed body and I Do Not Speak, which means I have more time for deep, ponderous internal monologues and wordplay. Ponder. Red nop. That's my thing – I say words backwards. Ti t'nsi, gniyonna? For you see, each of us Price girls needs a distinctive stylistic tic, otherwise we'd all sound exactly the same. Bath, sack, cock, cash, tab! There's a palindrome for you. No nasal task, Congo – loud duolog nocks Atlas anon. Good luck finding a profound thematic message in one of these. But if I run out of them, I guess I could always just go through the nearest Kikongo dictionary for material. *flips to page 342* Nkusu means ‘parrot’ but nkusi means ‘fart’. Hmmm. I wonder how many paragraphs I can get out of that?
I am just a widdle girl. I don't understand half of the things I see around me, which is just as well, given all the conflict diamonds and CIA agents I keep stumbling on. I play with all the children in the village, even though I have no toys, which is sad. If one of the village children dies, it's just as sad and tragic as if one of us cute little white girls dies. Well, not really, obviously, otherwise the whole book would have been about a Congolese family in the first place, but maybe if I keep saying it you'll at least think about it for a couple of minutes. Daddy doesn't seem to like the Congolese at all. Our daddy is such a big meanie. He loves god a whole bunch but he's just awful to Mother and my sisters. He's just the nastiest ogre you can imagine. ’Course, I guess he probably wouldn't see things that way. That's why we don't let him narrate any chapters of his own.
Opening sentence: "We came from Bethleham, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle."
Listen, little beast. Judge me as you will, but first listen. I am your mother. What happened to us could have happened anywhere, to any mother. I´m not the first woman on earth to have seen her daughters possessed. For time and eternity there have been fathers like Nathan who simply can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land. To work her, plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her. Miraculously, it causes these girls to grow. They elongate on the pale slender stalks of their longing, like sunflowers with heavy heads. You can shield them with your body and soul, trying to absorb that awful rain, but they´ll still move toward him. Without cease, they´ll bend to his light.
Reads like poetry doesn’t it? And it suits Orleanna. I didn't think so at first, given she's represented as uneducated, but as I got to know her and her love of language she rang more true. The voices of her daughters are quite different. That’s part of what I did find attractive in the book, even if Ruth May at times doesn't come across as a credible five year old and Rachel is too much a caricature of a Southern belle. But then there’s Nathan. In a word, he’s appalling--without a redeeming feature. He disdains the very idea of his daughters ever going to college. He sees it as a waste--like pouring water into shoes--either the water runs out or it spoils the shoes. I spent almost half the novel wondering how Orleanna could have married him--and although that’s explained some in the chapter from which the quote appears, he was still a cipher to me and I felt over the top. Ironically Kingsolver speaks in her afterward of how crucial to her was a Kilanga/French dictionary she found--compiled by a missionary. Nathan Price though isn’t just a completely unattractive figure--he’s unbelievably, arrogantly ignorant about the country and people he's ministering to and just Too Stupid To Live. He's also not a very credible Baptist--among other things being drawn to the Apocrypha, which Protestants don't accept. You know from pretty much the beginning that one of the children will die. And reading this, reading about Nathan, is like waiting for a disaster to happen, and when it finally did, I didn’t have the heart to continue the book.
I also couldn’t help but compare this book to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which was one of Kingsolver’s inspirations. There the role of Missionaries in Africa is much more nuanced, and Achebe has noted he’s not completely sympathetic to his protagonist who opposes them. You understand better reading that novel what the appeal of Christianity was to the outcasts of traditional African society. It’s something Kingsolver alludes to, but can’t give a balanced picture of because Nathan’s such a monster--and well, an idiot. And I sometimes felt he was written so to pound in a message. I might have felt differently if Nathan was given a voice--but as it was I found it hard to get past this character. (And by the way, I'm an atheist, not a Christian--it's not that I was offended by the depiction, I just found it one-dimensional.)
Overall, I'd call this book a thought-provoking and surprising adventure.
The author carefully crafted her characters with unique personalities which causes you to love and hate them at the same time. They become inextricably human as the book progresses causing you to feel the joys and sadness each one experiences. You can't help but feel the pull of the jungle and the strife it's people face on a daily basis to survive.
I wish I could put in better words the way this book affected me. It got under my skin and has left me with a warm glow. I highly recommend this book for your TBR pile.
One of the common threads that emerge from the various narratives is the misplaced obsession of the father (though his viewpoint is never cited directly), who is seen to be a monomaniac bully. At times hilarious, this novel is deeply interlaced with heart-rending tragedy, heightened by the sense of inevitability. But it is also a novel of great hope, and the potential for redemption.
Though the book climaxed a bit early for my taste and went off on a politically-charged tangent, I still loved it. The descriptions of Africa were beautiful, the characters were interesting, and I learned a lot about the Congo. I was also moved by the Price family's ability to adapt to even the most extreme change.
Greatly layered and well-written. would definitely recommend it to anyone.
I appreciated that Kingsolver was able to write such distinctive female characters & disappointed that she seemed to blow past both of her story's antagonists - the father & the CIA pilot. Where her female characters had real life both of these characters were essentially caricatures & that blunted the force of some of her arguments as well as the dynamic in her storytelling.
I also think this book deserved an edit. I was about 200 or so pages in before I got interested. The final bit of the book - a sort of freeflowing "Where Are They Now?" thing - seemed tacked on - as if Kingsolver couldn't decide what to do once she'd reached the denouement that pushed everyone out of the African village one way or the other.
It's also unclear to me why the mother in the story gets almost no opportunity to speak when the bits that are written in her voice are among the most fleshed out. She's certainly a more "real" character (even in her silence) than is Rachel, the older sister who is prone to malaprorisms of one kind or another. I really wish that piece of gimmickry had been left out - without it Rachel would've been another interesting voice, but the visible technique of the device (like seeing the man behind the curtain) took me out of the story every time.
Despite these criticisms, this is a book worth reading, if only for the very last chapter which is in the voice of my favorite character, Ruth May. That along with many moments of beautiful physical description scattered throughout the book make it a worthwhile read, if one that is sometimes incredibly frustrating.