By Barbara Kingsolver
© 2009, HarperCollins
Kindle Edition; File size 2370 KB
When Orleanna’s fiery Baptist husband, Nathan Price, takes her and their four daughters to the Belgian Congo on a mission trip in 1959, none of them can foresee the tragic consequences of his ill-fated decision. The nation is already poised on the verge of enormous political upheaval and this Georgia family, more accustomed to hot showers and flush toilets than mud-and-thatch housing or deadly snakes in the kitchen, are ill-prepared for the adventure on which they’ve embarked. Physical comforts aside, they face deadly diseases, deadly creatures, deadly insects, and a culture clash that leaves them all breathless. Nathan’s stubborn refusal to hear warnings from his fellow missionaries or their support teams puts his entire family in even more peril.
This is not an easy read. It’s the tragic tale of one family’s desperate decline and disintegration, all because of one man’s bull-headed refusal to bend his rigid principles or admit failure. Though Nathan fills many of the pages, all that we see of him is second-hand, through the eyes of his wife and four daughters (who range from 5 to 16). I wanted to hate him, or at least despise him. I finally walked away with a mere strong dislike of this character, since once all is revealed, I could at least understand why he did the things he did. An excellent writer can make the reader empathize to some degree with the most despicable antagonist, and Kingsolver possesses this skill in spades.
While the story is focused on how the characters are affected by all that follows their arrival in the Congo, and while that was certainly a riveting tale, I found myself just as caught up in the cultural clash, and the difficulty either culture demonstrated in seeing the other’s point of view. Yet on every page, I could see the tiny and gradual changes taking over each of the daughters. Their observances and the way each reacted to their imposed new lifestyle revealed as much about their individual personalities as did the author’s descriptions of them. The reactions of the villagers to the Price family’s ways was just as fascinating to me; I tried to put myself in their situation and imagine how I would react if someone came to my hometown and set their minds to change everything about my world: how I and my neighbors dress, how we raise our children, how we cook our meals, how we speak to God, which God we speak to, how we hunt or garden, and all the rest.
At every level, Poisonwood Bible is a tale of contrasts, from the obvious religious differences to the fact that the village men all had multiple wives, even unexpected things like the differences between the Price daughters and the village children; the Price girls thought for sure that the Congolese children, with their swollen bellies, couldn’t possibly be hungry. It never enters their mind to consider that the children aren’t overfed but are infested with parasites. It is only years of experience that make the Price daughters (and their mother) come to an understanding with Africa and the lasting changes it has wrought in their lives.
The Poisonwood Bible isn’t a book I can fully describe. It must be experienced to fully see its depth and breadth. Early on, I almost put it down because I found the overly Caucasian judgments of the Price daughters’ African neighbors, as well as some of the terminology, uncomfortable; but I reminded myself that this tale begins in 1959. Much of what the characters say and think is typical of that era, not to mention in keeping with their Southern Baptist upbringing. Later, of course, the tables are turned and it is not necessarily a good thing to have “white” skin in the Congo. After a certain point, I no longer wanted to put it down and never finish the story. I was driven to know how their individual lives turned out.
I will reiterate, though, that it is not an easy read. While you may be able to predict a few details, I promise you that turning the pages in The Poisonwood Bible will lead you down avenues you never expected. Highly recommended for readers who love a tale of family or political/cultural drama, or tales of tragedy and redemption.