Monday, April 30, 2007

The Poisonwood Bible

Last week was such a stressful week. Although I had the book club book plus a couple of 14-day loans, I wanted comfort, not yet another mountain to climb after a long day. The size and subject matter of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver might make it seem like an odd choice under the circumstances, but not to me. I really love that book, and have read it repeatedly over the years. I recommend it to anyone who will listen. Tonight, that includes you.

To simply say that it's about an American family who travel to the Congo as missionaries and witness the end of colonial rule, the murder of the newly elected prime minister, and the installation of a ruthless and venal dictator is to strip all the meat off the bones of the book. Although that is its basic outline, it is not an "issue" novel, not set to cram lessons down your throat but to expose the facts in the intimately intertwined histories of the Price family and the Congo, and let readers decide for themselves where to lay their sympathies and blame.

The Price family has six members, and each, except for Nathan, gets the chance to tell their side. Nathan is the family's driving force, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher determined to deliver salvation to the heathen Congolese through Jesus. His wife, Orleanna, married him at a young age, and is just trying to cope the best she can. Rachel is the eldest daughter and is what we called back in the fourth grade a "girly-girl": she frequently locked horns with her father on topics like nail polish, dating and skirt length. She is just shy of her 16th birthday at the opening of the book and her attempts to cope in the Congo, where they don't even have indoor plumbing, add levity to the more serious moments of the book.

Next in line at only 18 months younger than Rachel are twin girls, Leah and Adah. Both are extremely bright and academically oriented. Leah is outgoing and tomboyish, worshipful of her father, and religious. Adah suffers from hemiplegia. Her chapters are the most intriguing, for her affliction has freed her mind at the same time it's crippled her body. She can read and write backwards and forwards, and enjoys making up palindromes to suit the situation at hand. The book is her sole confidant; although she can speak, she elects not to, for the most part, and will write when she has something to say. Ruth May is the youngest of all, only five when the book opens, and views the world with a typical young child's perspective. As things go from bad to worse for the Price family and the Congo, she becomes a poignant symbol of sacrifice and loss of innocence.

And things do indeed, go from bad to worse. Epidemics of disease, plagues of driver ants, draught, famine and flood ravage the village of Kilanga where the Price family has set up housekeeping. Nathan is poorly suited to the work of witnessing to a foreign culture: he is a poor listener and a loud talker, and manages to alienate most everyone of influence within the village. This makes him angrier and more stubborn, harder on his family, and more determined to save every soul in Kilanga. Although most of the missionaries leave shortly after Independence, Nathan refuses to, despite the pleas of his family, even after tragedy strikes both the Prices and the new Republic of Congo, shattering the Price family and scattering them across two continents, never to reunite.

There are many, many things that are remarkable about this book. The characters are the main thing. They do pass the Maxwell Perkins test: if you were to meet Orleanna, Nathan, Leah, Adah, Rachel or Ruth May on the street, you would know them at once and know how you'd want to react. They are complex, they are "real people", defying easy judgement. You dismiss Rachel at first as merely the court jester, then condemn her as an opportunist, but ultimately come to understand her. Orleanna comes across at first as a stereotypical cowed, submissive housewife, but as her personal story unfolds, you admire her strength. Even tyrannical, cold Nathan, who hits has family and punishes his girls with The Verse (he gives them a Bible verse to start with and they have to copy that, and the next 100 verses, with the last one revealing their sin), becomes a more sympathetic figure when we learn that he was at Corregidor during World War II, and was the only man in his company to escape the Bataan Death March and to survive the war.

I also admire the technical achievements of this book. Kingsolver has done a staggering, wide-ranging amount of research into Congolese language, culture, history, and geography, and has been able to juxtapose it all with the Christian Bible. In Adah's chapters, it seems as though Kingsolver has trained several languages like you would a poodle: English, Kikongo, and French obligingly roll over, turn around backwards, shake hands and play dead in her able hands. To borrow a phrase from Rachel Price, it is a sheer tapestry of justice that Kingsolver didn't win the Pulitzer for this book. I give it my highest recommendation.

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