Sparked by Words

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver captivated me from the prologue where a mother traipses through an African jungle with her four young daughters.  Orleanna Price, the wife of a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, knows she is an oddity, a white woman in a Belgian Congo village in 1960. She seems to be speaking from a distant time and place, perhaps from her own grave. Her gimlet eye sees the jungle with its voracious ants and fecund flora, but more, she sees her internal life riven with conflict, acquiescence, and inadequacies that have cost her most dearly.

If Orleanna is quiet and submissive to her husband, it is he, Nathan Price, who is loudest and most obstinate. Intending to convert the native Congo inhabitants, he attempts to convince them of Christianity’s truth by pointing to the Bible and describing it as bangala, a Kilanga word he believes to mean “precious.” But his pronunciation is incorrect, and thus he declares the Bible to be “poisonwood.” It’s just the beginning of everything he gets wrong about Congo, from the language to the people to the customs to how hungry the community is to the coming revolution that will jettison colonialism in the Congo – and will alter his family’s course, one by one. Yet Nathan listens to no one and his obdurate convictions have catastrophic consequences for everyone.

Along with Orleanna, the four daughters tell the stories of their lives in Africa in alternating chapters. Rachel, the oldest at fifteen, the most beautiful and the most materialistic, is also cynical, selfish, and mixes metaphors hilariously. She yearns to be a normal teenager, something not possible in a jungle. Yet as an adult she carves out a unique livelihood managing a deluxe hotel in the French Congo, albeit with a bit of dishonesty, forgoing the luxurious American life she once imagined.

Leah, fourteen, is hard working, a natural leader, and a fearless idealist who most shares her father’s religious passion. She relishes education and especially Anatole, the man who is her teacher and whom she will marry. She is the daughter who becomes part of the fabric of Africa in the most authentic way, by moving with her husband and their four sons to Angola. Invigorated by a vision of a just society, she and Anatole help Angolan citizens reclaim their heritage and their country.

Adah cites her twin Leah’s dominant personality for stealing more than her share in the womb, leaving Adah to be born mute and crippled. Because she does not waste time trying to vocally describe what is happening around her, she is a brilliant observer. Adah returns to the United States, is healed of both her infirmities, and becomes a dedicated physician who studies viruses, an apt occupation for someone influenced by early life in Africa. She is the one who comforts Orleanna in her mother’s old age.

Ruth May at five is the baby, adorable and wise beyond her years. She makes friends with the tribal children, teaching them to play Mother May I, a game that becomes a plaintive elegy toward the end of the book. Ruth May is beloved by everyone in Kilanga, but it is her fate that turns the family inside out, that shows Nathan how much he has failed, and that destroys his mission to Congo.

The story exposes how completely wrong the Western world has been about Africa. From misunderstanding its rich language to its beguiling and sometimes horrific customs to assuming the indigenous people are bereft of intelligence or self-determination. Nathan of course is symbolic of wrong judgments at every turn, yet Kingsolver’s masterful writing prevents him from being a one-dimensional cartoon. However inappropriate his agenda for Congo, he is sincere in his faith and in his quest. We weep with him when he realizes he has failed to baptize his youngest child, but we do not mourn when we learn of his death.

Of my many favorite quotes, I begin with this from Orleanna: Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?

From Rachel: I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.

From Leah: Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all.

From Adah: It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.

From Ruth May: If somebody was hungry, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.

Each of these quotes, all of them early in the book, exposes a significant part of this multi-layered story and also reveals the personalities of the speakers. What moved me the most was how arrogant and assuming Nathan Price was, as well as a few other white people. Though some of the Congolese were confrontational or untrustworthy, as would be some people in any given population, this is their land. The richness of their culture sustains them even in hard times yet Price sees them only as ignorant folks who need agricultural education and Christianity to better their lives. He is unable to understand that what they need is nothing he has to offer, but freedom from a dominating and patronizing European government.

Written in chapters that echo the books of the Bible, each section shows the dissolution of impractical dreams and the creation of work that might truly sustain the inhabitants while respecting their history. The book ends with an epilogue that bookends the story. The mother and her four daughters walk through an African market, recalling the walk through the forest made decades earlier. Everything is changed, of course, everything about their lives and about Africa is different. As Ruth May notes, “Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit.”

It is a long story. My regret is that I came to the end of it and had finally to say good bye to the country, to the Price family, and to the Africans who peopled the land. Do not think I have already told you the whole story. I have told you nothing. Only Barbara Kingsolver can tell you the story of The Poisonwood Bible. Make yourself comfortable, open the book, immerse yourself in its pages. Read.

I look forward to learning about your favorite P fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for P:

Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Painted House by John Grisham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Peace like a River by Leif Enger

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Prague by Arthur Phillips

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

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Comments on: "P is for The Poisonwood Bible" (62)

  1. That sounds a great story. Must. Read. The only one on your list I’ve read is P&P. I preferred Persuasion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ years ago. Excellent book and so beautifully introduced here. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like a very involving story. By the way, I guess one “P” book not on your list but that many people will have read at one time or another is “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” I’m not sure if allegories count, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I absolutely loved this book, as well as her other work. I think she’s a brilliant writer, and so imaginative. Have you read The Lacuna? It’s about someone who works for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Highly recommended. Wish I could write like that…🌺

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I started Poisonwood a long time ago but felt nothing for the family and also guessed the book would be about white Christian men getting everything wrong. I wanted to write a novel like that about Christian missionaries once, too but further research into the complexities of conquest (a human habit affecting every tribe and every nation) and Christianity in the shape of a conversion experience and a missionary trip to Central America changed my point of view. All humans suffer from hubris. My favorite Bible quote is: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Humanity (black, white, Euro, etc) struggles with shoving beliefs down other people’s throats. It’s certainly not just a Christian thing. When Christians are getting it right their message is more one of good news. Coercion is unnecessary. Despite the many times Christians get it wrong I’m still in awe of the many Christians past and present who speak out for others when no one else seems to notice. A close friend has spent much of her adult life serving victims of sex slavery and forced military enslavement at the hands of radical Muslims in the Sudan. Each trip has been dangerous and heartbreaking. The victims care little about the long past. They see love, friendship and shared suffering as a human thing. Not a color thing.

    My mother read us Pride and Prejudice every night before bed. It has a special place in my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Adrienne, for your thoughtful comment. People of many religions, ethnicities, and from many other countries, as individuals and members of various groups, respond wholeheartedly to those who suffer or are in need, whether small deeds for a single person or a huge effort to mitigate a major disaster. It is hardly a domain that belongs solely to Christians.

      You are so lucky to have had a mother who read to you every night.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I agree that people of every faith and no faith at all do things with compassion. I’m more reacting to the tendency to judge Christians more harshly than the many other groups of people who are insufferable and intolerant (I’m thinking even of smokers, reformed smokers and anti-smokers as a non-religious example). Blaming “whites” or anyone else for all the world’s problems instead of seeing the fallen state of all humanity makes it always about “us” against “them.” Rwanda comes to mind as does the case of slavery. As a white person who’s family fought against slavery in the US I don’t feel responsible for a groups evil actions. Yet as a human living right now I do feel a certain responsibility to speak out for the slaves and victims of today. Not because I’m Christian but because I’m human (though Christ has a ton to say about loving our neighbors). 🙂

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      • I respect your right to your opinion but I do not agree with you about how much Christians suffer, and I don’t believe they are judged more harshly, especially in the United States.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for a very astute observation, Adrienne! We so often fail to see through the mask of an ideology (such as Christianity, Marxism, Free Market Capitalism, etc.) to the root cause of some behavior, human nature. That error seems to lead to all sorts of messy consequences. Glad to have come across your wisdom this morning!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Paul. Sometimes I just don’t get the need to label a person as something other than just human 🙂 I hated the song in the 80’s by Depeche Mode “People are People” but it comes into my head more often than I’d like to admit!

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      • I think sometimes cliches (e.g. “We’re all human”) are just as true as their truth is so easily overlooked precisely because they’re cliches. Someone once told me that the most important task of artist is more often to make an old truth fresh enough for us to see it, than to find a new truth altogether.

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      • I really like that!

        Thanks, Paul.

        A

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This looks like a great read. Thanks for the heads-up. Off to check it out on Goodreads…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie, let me know if you read it what you think – if I got it right.

      By the way, I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your columns on vaccination. So much scare mongering mythology about them. I hope people read your blog so they can see the effects of not being vaccinated for diseases totally preventable. Nearly everyone thinks absolutely not one second about vaccinating their cats and dogs. Yet some people fall prey to nonsense when it comes to vaccinating themselves or their children. Thanks for your medical background showing the logic and sanity behind vaccination. (Your comments sections are closed on most of these posts, so here is my two cents. 😀 )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. I appreciate that. Surely we must ensure vaccines are safe, but the amount of misinformation out there is staggering. I’ve seen babies with pertussis, not all of whom survived. Very heartbreaking.

        Since I mostly just post quick tips and updates, I end up closing comments. Keeps me from spending all my time on social media when I should be doing something else! But it’s always fun to stop by other blogs when I can. 🙂

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      • Hopefully a young parent who has been told of “the dangers of vaccines” will read this post and will hop on over to your blog and get some sound medical advice and will take care of their children with accurate information. I have little doubt about how much parents love their kids, but I wonder about where they get their advice.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Sharon, thank you so much for pointing out Carrie’s posts on vaccination! I’ve been looking for inspiration on how to bring up the subject with a friend of mine who has bought into the scary propaganda against vaccines. Maybe I can discover how to approach the matter with my friend in Carrie’s posts.

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      • Carrie is a physician as well as a writer, so she is a good source for this. I wish you well, Paul – could go on and on about superstitions taking over where common sense should reign, but that’s gotta be for another blog. You’ve got a good heart for looking out for your friend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much, Sharon. I wish I could say I was just looking out for my friend, but as it happens, there are three young grandchildren of hers that I’m also concerned about. She currently lobbies for them not to be vaccinated. So the stakes are quite high, in my opinion.

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      • I’ve tried to persuade people but once they get on the anti-vaccine bandwagon, the facts don’t impress them. I wish I could tell them how ill I was as a kid and I didn’t even have the big ones: smallpox or polio. Only by luck for polio because the vaccines came out in the mid-50’s. I do have a scar from smallpox vaccine. That’s pretty much wiped out in the world now. The density of our populations as well as the compression of the world because world travel is so easy make the contagion factor more dangerous than when I was a kid. Why would anyone who gets rabies shots for their dog or who takes insulin for diabetes refuse vaccines for their kids? I agree with you, Paul – I think the stakes are too high.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fascinating book. There is so much to respect about all cultures, I love how this book seems to detail that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly shows how misguided the missionary movement was in Africa at some junctures. Nathan Price is both a symbol of everything done wrong but also an individual who truly believed in his mission, however misguided. The life of the African natives was not easy (they lost their lives to snakes, wild animals, starvation, malaria, and hordes of carnivorous ants as well as fighting with each other and poor tribal leadership) but his help was not what they needed either. Kingsolver is one of my absolute favorite authors.

      If you decide to read this one, Jacqui, I’d love to know how long it took you as well as what you think.

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  8. I loved this book Sharon, especially with the Belgian references, and having spent some (short) time in a fairly strict Bible-believing church. The only other one of hers that I have tried is Flight Behavior, but I couldn’t get into that. Thanks for your excellent review of Poisonwood; I hope it inspires others to read it. Loved the Painted House too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Flight Behavior did have an odd beginning that took me a bit to get into until I realized what Kingsolver was writing about, and then I was completely committed to the book.

      Years ago, when my husband and I lived in Detroit, Michigan, we loved to cross the bridge into Canada and visit a place called Point Pelee National Park, a marshy sand spit that juts into Lake Erie, creating the southernmost tip of Canada. Surrounding the spit and the marsh are forests of huge trees. The first time we visited, we stood staring at the orange-leaved trees and then saw the most wondrous sight – the leaves flew away. They were in fact millions of orange monarch butterflies and this forest was one of their autumn sanctuaries. The air around us had become a cloud of flittering orange wings. Flight Behavior is about the complex lifecycle of the monarchs and how modern civilization is encroaching onto their traditional habitats. There is more to the book of course, but I loved the information about monarchs. We have built a small monarch garden in our yard to give them a place to roost.

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  9. dear Sharon, I have missed so many of your posts – am catching up now – & as always, they are terrific! I especially enjoy when you write about writing – but then I love the book discussions too 🙂

    not that this relates exactly – but being that you perhaps studied this stuff in college, have you read James Joyce? Just trudging thru Dubliners & doubt if I can complete – so depressing, too true to life, & not enough through-lines to sweep me along – do you recommend any of his other books?

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    • I thought this A to Z favorite books series would be easy – hah!I think I should have thunk on it a bit more. But thank you, Daal, for reading and commenting. I’m choosing the books that I’ve loved the most and that have had the most influence on me as a writer.

      I’ve never read James Joyce. Of the few friends I know who have, they tend to describe reading him as you do – trudging! One day I’ll try Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake. I know he wrote the following, “In the particular is contained the universe.” I love that line, and that’s all I’ve read. Sounds like it is just too negative for you to recommend Dubliners. Let me know if you finish.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, yes, yes! Poisonwood Bible, People of the Book, and Princess Bride are all favorites of mine too. I’ve read a couple of other of Kingsolver’s books–Animal Dreams, which was okay, and Flight Behavior, which was very good, but Poisonwood Bible is definitely her magnum opus.

    The only book I would add to your list is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, set in a medieval English town that is building a cathedral. There is a sequel–World Without End–but I haven’t read it yet. It’s been so long since I read Pillars that I want to reread it before I dive in to the sequel. It’s only time, right?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fortunately for Ken Follet, his books are already on my list of books to be read. He has a reputation as being an excellent writer, and with your positive comment, I look forward even more to reading his books. Thanks for the recommendation, Ilene.

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    • Ilene, Pillars of the Earth is, I believe, much underappreciated for its historical accuracy, especially in regards to the relationship between the rising merchant/trades class and the nobility at that time in Britain. My second wife happened to be fascinated with the walled cities and towns of Europe. Coming as she did from Japan, she knew that the common people had nowhere though-out Japan, Korea, and China been allowed to wall their towns and cities. She was so interested in the topic, she took out a minor in history to help her pursue it. When, years later, I told about how the merchants and tradespeople in Pillars came to wall their city, she was impressed by how accurate Follet had gotten even the relatively minor details of it.

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  11. I’ve read this and it sits on top of my desk at home. Thank you for a great read tonight, Shari.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow! This sounds like an epic book and a fully immersive read – your sadness at completing it is tangible. Another one for my tbr pile; a book I feel deserves large blocks of time at a go so perhaps for a holiday. Many thanks for sharing, Sharon! Wishing you a great weekend with time to spare for reading! 😀❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • What? You mean you don’t forgo your job, family, and dental appointments in order to read a great but very long book? LOL – Yes, this is one to take on vacation, or stay up a bit late each night to get through one more chapter. Let me know what you think if you read it, Annika.

      (BTW, I edited that tiny blip – no worries.)

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I’ve always been curious about the Poisonwood Bible, so thanks for satisfying some of my curiosity while piquing my interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great story👍👍

    Liked by 1 person

  15. haven’t heard from you in a bit – sending good thoughts your way that you’re merely engaged in wonderful activities, friend 🙂

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  16. This sounds interesting! Thanks for your thoughts about this book. Got on my list to read.

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  17. Jerry Peri said:

    The brief review is almost like reading the entire book!

    Like

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