I was intrigued by the premise of this novel after reading Prisco and Teabelly‘s reviews. It seems to me a rare thing to find a film or book that honestly captures the individual realities of family life under the oppression of a domineering man and his God.
The Poisonwood Bible begins as Nathan Price, a Baptist preacher, moves his family from rural Georgia to a tiny village in the Belgium Congo in 1959. The culture shock is captured through the eyes of his wife Orleanna and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruthie. The mission coincides with the end of colonial rule and the beginning of Congolese independence.
Kingsolver weaves the historical and the fiction expertly without muddling through much exposition. The reader is transplanted into the heart of Africa. We mostly see the political instability only as it affects the small village.
Orleanna and the girls live under the harsh, abusive rule of Nathan and under the shadow of his personal mission. His mission is a failure at every turn for he refuses to adapt to the circumstances. He arrogantly expects to bring the villagers to his ways and methods, however foolish they may be considering their environment. One of his goals is to baptize them all in a nearby river. He continues to preach this, oblivious to the very real dangers and fears regarding the crocodiles. He is unyielding, even when the errors of his ways are pointed out. He considers everything a test that must be overcome.
We never enter Nathan’s mind, though we see enough of it through his family. It isn’t until much later that we come to understand some of a particular humiliation in his past and the subsequent drive to see this new mission completed. This understanding in no way absolves him of his sins against those he should have loved and protected or against the villagers. It merely provides a small crack in an otherwise concrete exterior.
Orleanna remains a passive character for much of the novel. It isn’t until a tragedy occurs that she is finally motivated to act. She spends the rest of her life in a purgatory state seeking forgiveness from her girls and from the reader.
The girls all react differently to their new environment. They represent the various outcomes of a foreigner confronted with the realities of Africa.
Rachel ignores Africa. She refuses to be changed by it. She looks down at the people, and she is unwilling to acknowledge the cruelties and discrimination.
Leah becomes Africa. She absorbs the culture to the point that America is the foreign land.
Adah studies Africa. She notes details of the customs and language. She eventually uses her mind to study African viruses.
Ruthie belongs to Africa. She adapts to Africa without losing herself in the process, but she also succumbs to Africa’s dangers twice.
One of the best parts of the book is the slow but sure process of Leah’s defiance against her father. She begins her story seeking his attention, affection, and approval. By the end of the novel she recognizes him and his failures and can say so to his face.
Another favorite part is the influence of democracy in the village. The idea of a majority vote is ridiculous to a village used to compromising until they have a unanimous vote. How can 51 beat 49? It means that half of your people will be unhappy. Nathan, of course, champions Western ways, but the chief is able to use them against him when he calls for a vote in Nathan’s church – for or against Jesus. SPOILER : Jesus loses 11 to 56.
The tragedy soon splits the family, some staying in Africa and some returning to America. The remainder of the novel is much slower than the first half – especially Leah’s chapters. I found much of it unnecessary for Kingsolver had already made her points in more effective ways. The drawn out ending seemed to take away from that.
Reader who might turn away because of any religious undertones needn’t worry here. Christianity itself is practically nonexistent. It is an interesting novel about the futility and arrogance of forcing one culture upon another.