As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they’re not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle,” says Leah, one of Nathan’s daughters. But of course it isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?
In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan’s intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor’s animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member’s fortune across a span of more than 30 years.
The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver’s most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price’s wife and daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate–teenage Rachel’s tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their “French congregations”; Nathan’s refusal to take his family home is a “tapestry of justice”). More problematic is Kingsolver’s tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.
Although ”The Poisonwood Bible” takes place in the former Belgian Congo and begins in 1959 and ends in the 1990’s, Barbara Kingsolver’s powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption and the ”dark necessity” of history. The novel’s central character, a fiery evangelical missionary named Nathan Price, is part Roger Chillingworth, the coldhearted, judgmental villain of Hawthorne’s ”Scarlet Letter,” and part Ahab, Melville’s monomaniacal captain who risks his life and the lives of those closest to him in pursuit of his obsessive vision. Narrated in alternating chapters by Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, ”The Poisonwood Bible” begins with the arrival of the Price family in the remote Congolese village of Kilanga, a tiny cluster of mud houses devoid of all the ordinary amenities of life back home in ”the easy land of ice cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We Like Ike.” Moving fluently from one point of view to another, Ms. Kingsolver does a nimble job of delineating the Price girls’ responses to Africa and their father’s decision to uproot them.
This was also a book I read a while ago, and didn’t know quite how to put into words the heartache, fear, anger, patience, and faith that each of the characters experience in this epic family adventure in the heart of the Congolese jungle.
Kingsolver’s style is engaging. From the first word to the last, she held my interest with her easy story-telling and compelling characters, who undergo so much change, physically and emotionally, that I felt I was reading about people I knew. The story is told from the point of view of each character – from the mother to the father, from the eldest to the youngest daughter. Seeing the story from these varied points of view drew me into the heart of the family, and the troubles and challenges that each face in their new home. I grew to love the family – the mother and daughters, but not the father, for he is one that is static and stubborn in his belief that moving his family to the Congo was the correct act, regardless of the consequences; and that the natives needed to be treated and punished like children in order to be “civilized” and “saved” through Christianity.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely. This is a novel you can immerse yourself in completely. Reading the last word was like coming up for air – gasping and breathless with exhaustion – but also quite sad because I was no longer a part of that world.
A novel that is similar in subject and setting is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, which is also set in the Congo, and deals with the corruption and “civilization” of the natives.