reading: The Poisonwood Bible

August 24, 2015

I had very little idea of what to expect when I cracked open The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Many people had recommended it to me, and I had walked past the book on library shelves more times than I can count. Once I finally started reading it, what I experienced was a visceral novel about family, gender, religion, colonization, love, and forgiveness. This is now one of my favorite books.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the family of Nathan Price, a Baptist preacher who uproots his white family from Jim Crow era Georgia to be missionaries in Congo, which is on the cusp of revolution and unrest. When transplanted to African soil, European ideas and intentions morph and change beyond what anyone could have imagined.

“Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place. ” -Barbara Kingsolver

The story is narrated by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and his daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. Each of these women has her own discernible voice. I was often laughing at the way vain Rachel mixed up words (for instance, saying Damnisty International), being struck by the poetic observations of stunted Adah, and feeling for Leah's constant striving to overcome her whiteness as she realized how Africa had been manipulated by Europe and America. The characters grow up completely, and this story is an epic, tracing their lives from childhood to adulthood. The book tells the story of colonization though the metaphor of this small family, as each character makes an impact on Africa whether they want to or not, and is changed irrefutably by Africa whether they want to be or not.

"Away down below single file on the path comes a woman with four girls, the pale doomed blossoms. The mother leads them on, blue-eyed, waving a hand in front of her to part the curtain of spiders’ webs. She appears to be conducting a symphony. Behind her back the smallest child pauses to break off the tip of every branch she can reach. She likes the stinging green scent released by the broken leaves. [...] If the mother and her children had not come down the path on this day, the pinched tree branches would have grown larger and the fat-bodied spider would have lived. Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Even the child Ruth May touched history. Everyone is complicit." -Barbara Kingsolver

I was also drawn in by the depiction of religion, and the comparison between Nathan Price's harsh and judgemental God, and the natural and flexible view of the divine held by Brother Fowles, the previous missionary to Kilanga before the Prices. Borther Fowles befriends the natives of Congo, he lets their customs blend with his, and he shares the life of the place he visits, instead of combatting it. He sees God in nature, and believes that salvation is not as simple as being born in a "civilized" country.

“ in Creation which is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation. This God does not work in especially mysterious ways. The sun here rises and sets at six exactly. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly. A bird raises its brood in the forest and a greenheart tree will only grow from a greenheart seed. He brings drought sometimes followed by torrential rains and if these things aren’t always what I had in mind, they aren’t my punishment either. They’re rewards, let’s say for the patience of a seed.” -Barbara Kingsolver

This book is challenging. It is lushly written, emotionally gripping, and extremely thought provoking. It is a must read. 

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