In 1959, Nathan Price, a Baptist minister, took his family to the Belgian Congo to be missionaries. Told by his wife and four daughters, their story is one of expectations gone awry. Nearly everything they took with them was transformed by this harsh new land, including they themselves. Nathan was a hard man whose sole purpose in coming to the Congo was to save the souls of the Congolese people, but he neglects the lives and souls of his own family in the process. It's the epic story of one family's tragic undoing that takes decades to repair, all paralleling the Congo's post-colonial struggle for independence. The Price family's story is set against the political backdrop of a country gaining its independence from Belgium, the assassination its first elected leader, and the CIA coup that installed a cruel dictator in his place. As the Congo battles to forge autonomy amidst chaos, each of the Price women must strive to find their own autonomy and to make sense of a life that was thrust upon them that has changed them in unexpected ways and then move forward into a future where they will never be the same again.
I hardly know where to begin with this review, because The Poisonwood Bible is a book that's so full of depth and complexity that I feel anything I write about it will be paltry in comparison. In it, Barbara Kingsolver explores the intricate themes of politics, European colonialism in Africa, religion, and culture, deftly drawing parallels between these themes and the lives of the Price family who go to the Congo in 1959 as missionaries. There's also a running theme that juxtaposes captivity and freedom, and how sometimes, the captivity is of our own making. The author herself calls this book an allegory, "in which the small incidents of characters' lives shed light on larger events in our world." There is so much metaphor to be found in this book, I'm sure I missed a lot of it. I read this book for my church book club and there were several things that came up during our discussion that I hadn't even thought about while reading it. The Poisonwood Bible was a very meaty book that readers can really sink their teeth into, but at the same time, it's infinitely readable and extremely engaging, feeling like you've just sat down to tea with these women as they tell you their stories.
The Price family, dad, Nathan, mom, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, all go to the Congo in 1959, because Nathan wants to save Congolese souls for Christ. The majority of the book is told by the four daughters in their alternating first-person POVs as events are occurring, but at the beginning of the first five sections of the book, Orleanna gets her say in what we assume to be the present-day, as an old woman looking back on the past. The first two-thirds or so of the book covers the seventeen months the Prices spent in the Congo as missionaries, while approximately the last third jumps ahead through their lives by a year, two years, or maybe even more, showing what happens to them over the next three decades. During that time, we see how their time in Africa changed them all in unexpected ways but how this foreign land also got into their blood, tying them down. And of course, all the while that the Price family are working through their difficulties in the little village of Kilanga where they've gone to minister, the entire Congo is in political upheaval around them and on the brink of civil war. However, despite being in the thick of it all, there are many things they don't know about what's going on until much later.
Nathan Price never gets his own POV, and IMHO he didn't need one. As Ms. Kingsolver says on her website, this isn't Nathan's story. However, his decisions and actions have far-reaching consequences. In any case, she painted a vivid picture of this man through the eyes of his wife and daughters, and despite being a minister, he was not a good man. He may have been a decent man during his early years, but he returned from WWII forever changed. An overblown sense of survivor's guilt that he couldn't put to rest drives him to go save as many souls as he can, because he wasn't able to save the other men in his unit from a hideous death. His religious zealotry grows into an obsession that gradually distances him from his own family until they can't stand to be around him. In trying to save other souls, he also drives them away from the God and the faith he professes. He's also an abusive and unforgiving man. It would be easy to hate Nathan, but in the author's talented hands, I may not have exactly felt sympathy for him, but I did understand on some level what makes him tick. He's a man who can't forgive himself and in his warped mind believes that God won't forgive him either, so he sets out looking for an absolution that I'm not sure he ever found, without ever realizing or perhaps not caring that he's losing everything he should have held dear in the process. I think he also may have been suffering from some kind of untreated mental illness that only makes his actions seem more desperate and bizarre over time.
I got the sense that Orleanna was a vibrant woman in her youth, and that she was happy in her marriage to Nathan at first. But when he returns from the war, he's a completely different man and no longer the one she married. Soon, though, she was saddled with three children in diapers, so her life was consumed with caring for them and little else. I think she was always a woman with her own thoughts and opinions, but she was rarely ever allowed to voice them. Nathan beat her into submission both literally and metaphorically, while she was also a product of the era in which she lived, where women were expected to be more compliant with their husband's wishes. It takes a long time and much hardship, but eventually Orleanna finds her inner strength again and draws on that to make a stand.
The most memorable voices, though, belong to Nathan and Orleanna's daughters. I'll begin with the oldest, Rachel. When they leave for the Congo, she's a teenager who's obsessed with the types of things that most girls her age are: friends, fashions, hairstyles, entertainers (though she must sneak around to go to the movies), and boys (though she's never really dated). She's also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I think, on some level, she knows it and doesn't care. She does sometimes complain about her younger sisters being smarter, but she doesn't really show much interest in improving herself either. I actually enjoyed how the author deliberately uses incorrect words in her dialogue and thought processes. Rachel is very self-absorbed, rarely stepping outside her own little bubble to care about what's going on in the world around her. Even as the reality of their situation in Africa settles in, she still seems to think the world does and should revolve around her. Rachel has her prejudices and a great deal of shortcoming that could make her easy to dislike, but much like with her father, I understood how her upbringing and her personality plays into where her life takes her. She uses her strong personality to forge a not wholly unexpected path for herself in a man's world even though she has to do some manipulative things to get there.
Next oldest are identical twins Leah and Adah, who are also teenagers but with much more depth than their older sister. They may look alike, but they couldn't be more different if they tried. Leah is a tomboy who craves adventure and anything to do with the great outdoors. She desperately wants her father's approval and in some ways, I think she tries to be the son he never had. As such, she's the closest to him, but as she soon learns that bond is pretty much one-sided. She's also extremely smart, having been in gifted classes in school before going to Africa. I think Leah is the daughter to whom I related the most, and in some ways, she seemed the most normal. While I don't have it in me to do many of the things Leah does, I admired her greatly for her strength and fortitude in the face of so much adversity. She, out of all the sisters, is the one who is able to form a loving, healthy, and lasting relationship, which kind of satisfied the romance reader in me. Leah may have struggled throughout the rest of her life with some of the things that happened to her family, but I think she was able to process it all a little better than the others.
Adah was born with brain damage and as such, one whole side of her body is weak and difficult for her to use. Also because of the way her brain formed, she has a very unique way of thinking in palindromes and reading backwards. She's equally as smart as Leah, but she refuses to talk, which I think made many view her as mentally slow. Because of her disability, Adah views the world from a very unusual perspective. She's always the physically slow one, so she tends to see things others miss. She also has a scientific mind that views things in a logical way. Out of all the girls, she's initially the only one who doesn't really subscribe to her parents' Christian beliefs. I think she struggles sometimes with feelings of inadequacy, because she thinks her family and those around her see her as less than, although she oddly feels rather welcome around the people of Kilanga, because there are many in the village who bear their own disabilities in a matter of fact way. I think what she struggled with the most, though, is feeling like her mother didn't love her as much as her "perfect" little sister.
Last but not least is little Ruth May, who's the youngest and only five when they go to Africa. For her this is something of an adventure. She loves Jesus with the abandon that only a little child can, and sees the things around her through eyes of wonder. She easily makes friends with the other little kids in the village, teaching them how to play "Mother, May I?" and other games. She's imaginative and full of life, a sweet little girl, who hasn't quite become jaded yet by her father's abuse and religious zealotry, because she sees things in shades of simplicity. She likes everyone and everyone seems to like her. It's just that easy for her.
There are numerous secondary characters, but a few stood out to me a little more than others. Anatole is the village school teacher, who also acts as a translator to the Prices who don't know the language. He translates Nathan's sermons to the people who come to church each week, and eventually tries to translate the Congolese culture to Nathan who isn't particularly receptive. He does, however, make an impression on Leah, and I like how he treated her as his intellectual equal. Anatole is a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent man, an idealist who was easy for me to love. Nelson, an orphaned student of Anatole's who he sets up as the Price's houseboy, can at times be good for a few laughs and others can be quite serious for such a young lad. He becomes friends with the girls and teaches them a lot about the Congo. Mama Mwanza was the villager who stood out to me the most, because she lost both her legs and walks on her hands, has so little when it comes to material wealth, lost a couple of her children, and yet, she shows great compassion and seems to be happier than the Prices are. Eeben Axleroot is a mysterious man who flies his own airplane, which is pretty much the only way in and out of Kilanga. He's very mercenary, though, and has his hands in a lot of different pots, seeming to work for whoever can pay him the best. He cleans up his act just a little when Rachel finds herself in need of a savior, but not enough to truly be likable. Then there's Brother Fowles and his family. He preceded the Prices as missionary to Kilanga, but many thought he got too involved with the natives and became too much like them. I, on the other hand, felt like he was a more loving and Christlike figure than any other character in the book.
Overall, The Poisonwood Bible was an incredible read filled with haunting beauty that has left an indelible impression on me. Each of the girl's voices are so distinct, I would have known who was speaking even without their names as headers to each chapter. The Congo became a character unto itself, making me feel like I'd been transported to another time and place. I've only read a handful of stories that take place in Africa and all were in the northern area of the continent. This is the first story I've read that takes place in the African interior, and I feel like I learned a great deal about the land, the people, and the culture there. Being more of a genre fiction reader, I can't say I've ever really explored literary fiction much. While I don't disdain it, I have perhaps avoided it, because I felt like it might be too heavy or difficult to understand. The Poisonwood Bible is definitely making me rethink that. It's a work of pure genius incorporating political, social, and religious themes as well as a deep exploration of the human condition, while also being very accessible. I love books that make me think and I'm sure I'll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. It was an elegant, lyrical, intricately layered story with some of the most complex characterizations I've ever read. It might have been my first read by Barbara Kingsolver, but it most certainly won't be my last. I very much look forward to seeing what else she has to offer and hope that I get as much of a feast for the senses and intellect as I did with this book.
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