Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘Africa’

P is for The Poisonwood Bible


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

The Revolution of Dreams

This is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, but you must bear with me to get to the tribute.

We moved to Oahu, Hawaii in late 1959. It was the second time my family had lived there, the first being the year when I turned four and my dad served in the US Army as a physician, doing his internship at Tripler Army Hospital after earning his medical degree. Our second venture, my parents had promised two things: that Hawaii was a melting pot of races and beliefs, and that we would only stay one year. An adventure from which we’d return to our lives in New Jersey and resume our East Coast friendships and pursuits. (Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.)

Now 11, I had a tough time on this island paradise. I wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, crinolines under my flared skirts, and spoke with a pronounced New Joisey accent. The local kids wore shifts (a sleeveless straight dress more like a slip than what I considered a dress,) went barefoot, and spoke Pidgin English. I’d studied classical ballet, opera, theatre, piano, French, and had read almost all the children’s classics. The Hawaiian kids went surfing, danced hula, played ukulele, strung leis, and knew all the ancient Hawaiian legends about the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, and the menehune, secretive elves who lived in the thousands of caves on the islands. Many of the island kids traced their lineage to Hawaiian royalty or to ancestors in Asia. I traced mine to Polish and Russian Jews who escaped Europe just in time. (For Jews who escaped Europe, it was always just in time.)

There was nothing wrong with the island kids. I just didn’t fit. I was outcast immediately at Punahou, the elite private school where Barack Obama was later educated. More than the personal torment from the island kids, who told me I would always be a mainlander in their eyes, and who put a fist sized cockroach in my desk as a way of welcoming me to school, was the torment I witnessed them inflicting on each other. Shifting social status was the norm, causing an uncomfortable ranking system. I was always at the bottom. Perhaps it increased my sensitivity to the plight of others.

You need to know that the center of Oahu is occupied by American troops. Everyone who lives in Hawaii is familiar with the military bases in the mountains. Ships of all kinds berth at the docks, and military transports fly in and out of the airbases on a regular schedule. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all prominent. Young soldiers (I’ll call them all soldiers though I recognize that they each have specific identification depending on their military commitment) from their ranks often going into Honolulu on liberty to experience the bars and probably the brothels. Even at 11, I understood that my freedom and security were reinforced and guaranteed by the presence of these courageous troops who were only about ten years older than I and far from home.

Getting to and from school each day required I take two or three city bus rides that meandered through the suburbs. I sometimes walked the second transfer rather than wait for the bus, an easy task in the languid Hawaiian climate. One day as I walked, I noted two young Army soldiers about 15 steps ahead of me. They were dressed in uniforms sharply pressed and perfectly fitted, their caps at a jaunty angle on their short hair. They walked in long strides staying on the sidewalk, and if they spoke, I couldn’t hear them. Respectful and dignified. Did I mention that they were Black Americans? (Wasn’t the words we used then. I would probably have called them Negro and meant it with complete esteem.)

The bus I would have taken lumbered by, a steel cab of seats, wheels, and lights. Out of the open windows leaned its passengers, those who would have been my fellow travelers. They were the typical motley group of Hawaiian islanders in the late 50’s – mixed Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Haole (white,) Portuguese, the melting pot my parents had promised. It seemed the entire busload of occupants thrust their heads and arms through the windows, gesturing as if shooing foraging dogs. They screamed, “Go home, you niggahs, go home.”

Intaking daggers with my breath, I stopped walking for a few moments. The young soldiers did not. They didn’t respond in any way, at least not outwardly. The Pacific Command is headquartered in Honolulu. The safety of the passengers, of our country, was insured by the vast presence of military on the island, from where troops were trained and later deployed to fight in Japan and Korea, later in Vietnam, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East. That day the soldiers walked. Next month they might have been given orders to any dangerous hotspot in the world, and only God knows if they would have returned safely. The busload of passengers had reduced them to a nasty slur, discounting their sacrifice. In their prejudiced minds all they saw was the color of their skin and not the valor of their occupation, the dignity of their being.

It was probably a decade before I heard the name Nelson Mandela and knew who he was. It was a decade in which my sense of tolerance for those who are different from me grew with my frustration at the bigotry of so many. Mandela despised the moral turpitude that allowed the white population to discredit black people. He worked to right those social and political wrongs. Before I left Hawaii on my thirteenth birthday, he was already imprisoned for his actions against the government of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent his life working to build bridges between people of different colors, encouraging them to see that we are all connected by our humanity. He was not always gentle, he was not always soft spoken. He never gave up. He demanded opportunity for everyone; he demanded a voice for each person. He did not want to erase the color of one’s skin but praise the beauty of all people. He was anti-apartheid in a country ruled by the fist and power of a minority who saw him and his brethren as inferior and threatening and who controlled the native population by refusing to provide equal education to the children or options for advancement for the adults.

You scared me sometimes, Nelson Mandela. You woke me up to the injustices in South Africa. You won my admiration by the persistence of your devotion to universal rights. You showed us how a nation can be transformed. You inspired me. We will miss you but your legacy remains. The world is a better place for you having been in it, and I have no doubt that you are welcomed to whatever place of divine grace comes next.