Reading my way through Popsugar’s 2016 Book Challenge.
Category: A book about a culture you are unfamiliar with.
The Poisonwood Bible — Barbara Kingsolver (544 pages)
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Favorite Line: To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.
I went through waves during this book; there were times I couldn’t put it down, and times I had to force myself just to read another sentence. This, I believe, is very reflective of the book itself.
Most of the book is a train wreck—not the writing or the plot (the writing is actually quite beautiful), but what happens to the family and those around them is a train wreck. It’s one thing after another and it hurts to have to read, but then there are times when the train wreck isn’t as bad and you think for a moment, or a couple of chapters, that it’s all going to be uphill from here…and then it’s not.
The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family as they move to the Belgian Congo to be missionaries in a small village. The father, Nathan Price, is about as stern of a Christian preacher as I have ever read about. Having been born and raised a Catholic, I’m not exactly an expert on the mannerisms of Protestant preachers, but I am certain the majority of them are not like Nathan Price; he is an extreme of the extremes.
He accepts his post as missionary without hesitation and brings along his wife and four daughters, who are all, as it turns out, opposed to the move. For Nathan Price, however, this was his mission from God and he would complete his mission no matter the cost.
Nathan Price sees the Congo as a diseased beast more than anything. He was determined to save the country, which is a righteous goal, but he is misguided because he refuses to believe that he could learn or gain anything from the country or it’s people. For example when planting crops he insists on only using western techniques, even though all his attempts fail in the African climate. This is just one example of how his blind pride and stubborn attitude lead his family more into despair and isolation in the Belgian Congo.
“My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.”
The story is primarily narrated by the four daughters, with occasional narration by the mother. The girls all have very different mannerisms. The eldest, Rebecca, is well into her teenage years and very superficial. Next are the twins, Leah and Adah, both very smart, but as opposite as could be. Leah is positive and remains so longer than the rest, and Adah has a very dark and sarcastic mind. Lastly is the little girl, Ruth May, who is under the age of ten during their African days.
The point of view of these girls is important because due to their difference in age and in attitude give a more complete narrative about what was going on given the four different voices. While they were very different, they all agreed on one thing, their father was wrong. Even Leah, who was very attached to their father in the beginning, grew distant from him because of his crazy tactics.
The mother is despondent throughout the entire book, and despite her internal rebellion against her husband, she barely speaks out against him, and when she does her tone is extremely passive aggressive. She is a sensible woman, but is unable to put her good sense into action, until after terrible tragedy strikes.
I gave this book three stars because while it was a captivating book at times, I could not fully believe the story. All the characters seemed too extreme to me, there was no one who I could relate to and fully become captivated in their lives. Now, perhaps the characters had to be extreme just to fit with the extreme situation they were put in, but for me it was not believable.
In the end the family is broken and distant. The end of their family unit is brought by the stubbornness of the father, which again, I find hard to believe. His actions do not follow what he claims to believe and unless he became possessed while he was there, I can’t see him actually choosing his mission over the safety of his family.
Kingsolver fills this book with beautiful imagery of Africa, but also with the harsh truth of how hard the life is over there. I do believe this book is an important read, but more for the social issues and history is addresses rather than the plot of the Price family.
Barbara Kingsolver is an award-winning author with multiple books on The New York Times bestseller list.