Fall Reading – The Poisonwood Bible

Posted by Kathy Torrence on Sep 23, 2008 in Books I'm Reading |

I finally finished my latest read – The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  I say ‘finally’ because it seems like I’ve been reading this book forever – at 543 pages, this is a VERY long read – and one that does not move along very fast, I’m afraid.

But the book is well worth the effort.

The Poisonwood Bible follows the story of the Price family living in Africa in the early 1960s as missionaries.  The story is told from the perspective of each of the four daughters – Rachel, the oldest daughter who really just wants to be back in the US wearing pretty skirts and makeup; Leah, one of a set of twins who idolizes her father and will do whatever it takes to make him happy; Adah, Leah’s twin sister who is disabled after an injury at birth but remains very intellectual; and Ruth May, the fun-loving baby of the family who spends her days playing with the native children.  Parts of the story are also told by their mother, Orleanna, who looks back at her life and her mistakes and asks for understanding and forgiveness.

The father of the family, Nathan, is controlling and hell-bent on converting the locals to Christianity while his wife and daughters do the best they can to cope with life in Africa.  The book focuses on the political atmosphere as well as the daily struggles of life in the jungle – killer ants, snake bites, starvation, drenching rains, and the distrust of the native people toward whites. 

According to the author, this distrust comes with good reason.  She uses the setting to inform the reader about the unfair and morally corrupt practices used by the Belgians, French and the Americans during this time period on the Dark Continent.

Even after the Prices are no longer missionaries (although Nathan holds out until his death), the author continues to follow the sisters and how they are influenced by African history until the present day.

A few scenes and lines that will really stick with me from this story…

The title comes from the fact that the word bangala means ‘most precious’ – but it also means ‘poisonwood’ (a tree that causes a horrible rash if touched) – it depends on the inflection used.  At the end of all of his sermons, Nathan Price ends with “Jesus is bangala!” (with the wrong inflection, of course) – which is not a big draw for the natives to Christianity.  The same is true when he insists on baptizing children in the river – which is avoided by the natives because of the crocodiles.  They can’t understand why this white man wants to feed their children to the crocodiles…again, not a big attraction for this new religion.

Nathan Price does not understand why the Africans do not grow crops such as tomatoes in their rich soil.  He carefully plants some seeds that he brought with him and while they do grow into healthy plants, they never produce any fruit – they flower, but then the flowers wither away.  It isn’t until later that he realizes that there are no bees in Africa necessary to pollinate the flowers and produce fruit.  This is a real metaphor for life in Africa – we cannot try to impose our way of living upon this part of the Earth – the very nature of the place will not allow it.  We can bring and plant the seeds, but without the missing ingredients, nothing will take root.  And who are we to say that our tomatoes are better than their manioc?  How can we be so sure that our way of life is best?

Adah explains toward the end of the book that the jungle has ways for renewing itself and its people.  Like the killer ants – they eat everything (even small animals) in their path – but this destruction includes parasites and other dangerous pests.  Adah also remarks that in trying to save babies with vaccinations and medical care, we have created other issues.  Before vaccinations, people in that part of the world had nine babies in the hopes that one would survive, Adah remarks.  And just because we help to save all the children doesn’t mean that people will stop having those nine babies – this had inadvertently led to issues with a starving, overpopulated Africa.

One other line that stood out to me…Leah is talking about how the jungle takes back everything eventually – all the villages, if left in their natural state, are taken over by vines and animals in no time.  Along that same thought, she discusses her children born to her after marrying a black man.  She mentions that, “I look at my own boys, who are the colors of silt, loam, dust, and clay, an infinite palette for children of their own, and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether.”  I walked away thinking how true this is in our world of today – although we try to divide ourselves into black and white, how long will it be until nature takes us all over and we all become shades of gray?  How can bigotry continue to exist in a world like that…and how long will it take to get there?

This is not a light book – and these are certainly not light topics.  But in following the story of the Price family, my eyes were opened to some history and current day issues that I had not considered before.

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