Retired teacher. Hometown: Eden, NY.
There is something in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE for everyone. Whether it be a probing examination of Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo, a painfully revealing observation of human relationships, the naked plundering of colonialism's arrogance, the shameful machinations of the "ugly American" in African politics; or conscience and redemption, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is certain to elevate the reader out of his comfort zone.
It is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a firebrand evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it - from Betty Crocker cake mixes to garden seeds to Scripture - is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. As history unfolds, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband's part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale incredibly darkened by own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story by turns are her four daughters - the self-centered teenaged Rachel, shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father's intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation.
Each character enters the Congo (later renamed Zaire) with preconceived expectations. Rev. Nathan Price, assigned to Kilanga mission, is determined to enlighten the savages and to rule his family with strict biblical sanction. Orleanna readies herself to protect them all from whatever perils may come - from jungle, river, or father and his terrible God. Rachel, fifteen, resents being dropped on "this dread dark shore" far from America's fashions and comforts. "God's Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory" epitomizes Leah's involvement in her surroundings. Adah, victim of hemiplegia at birth, limps along and maintains silence. And little Ruth May just faints all the time.
From 1959 through 1998, the Price sisters tell their stories in alternating narratives that reflect their ages as the years pass and the understandings that they achieve. These stories - together with Orleanna's retrospective commentaries - reveal the amazing forty-year saga that the Prices and the Congo share.
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE gradually reveals its binding themes, chief of which is the cultural arrogance of the West. Nathan serves as the personal embodiment of Western pride, unquestioning in his missionary zeal to overturn the ancient traditions of the Congo and replace them with his own religious beliefs. His "demonstration garden" reveals his stultifying hubris that the Congolese are so backward that they have no idea how to grow their own food. It is the United States government, however, that wields its cultural arrogance most dangerously, feeling entitled to assassinate a foreign nation's president (Patrice Lamumba) and replace him with its own greedy puppet ruler.
Brother Fowles, who symbolizes the positive side of Christianity, is the first to introduce the theme of pantheism into the book. Orleanna, herself a former nature worshipper, quickly picks up on this idea and adopts it as her own form of spirituality. Given that cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin's primary vehicles, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote.
Another major theme is how people deal with the burden of guilt. Although the book may be seen as a political allegory, the story it tells focuses on the guilt of five women - for example, their private guilt over the death of a daughter and sister, and their public guilt over the rolled they played in Africa's tragedies. The question is constantly in the foreground: What did our nation do in the Congo, and how should we respond to the fact?
It is through Adah that we receive the revelation of another inescapable primary theme - the impossibility of absolute and unambiguous justice on a global scale. Most of the women who address the issue insist that a complete routing of injustice from the world is impossible. Adah compels us to most closely examine justice in global terms. Absolute justice, she says - at least the crude sort of justice that Westerners believe in - is impossible. We think, for instance that it is unjust that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this injustice, we send over doctors to feed and inoculate them. Yet, she points out, the result of this good deed is simply death of a different sort. Overpopulation leads to food shortage, deforestation, and the extinction of species. We cannot change the balance of the world, eliminating all that we consider sad and wrong.
While preparing this review, I made a list of quotations that impressed me with their capacity to reveal the depth of character growth in so few words. I have choses to illustrate with five.
~~ "Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife if not a conquest herself?" This quote appears in Orleanna's opening narrative and immediately introduces us to the dominant theme of the book. She suffers paralyzing guilt over her complicity in the death of one of her daughters, and also the overwhelming guilt she suffers because of the crimes perpetrated by the United States against the natives of the Congo.
~~ "The smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face." When Adah discovers that Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States, is behind the CIA plot to overthrow the elected government of Congo and assassinate its president, it shows her growing disillusionment with father figures (Nathan, God, and American leaders) that Orleanna and Leah are experiencing. For her, Eisenhower's treachery is not that different from the fact that "Grandfather God" damns children to hell just for being unbaptized.
~~ "I felt the breath of God go cold on my skin." Leah utters this as she rows with Anatole across the river and away from the driver ants. Amid the tumult of escape, Leah and Anatole speak of race and injustice, and Leah finally suffers her ultimate crisis of faith. Moments later she replaces her old faith with a new one, murmuring Anatole's name over an over, feeling that "it took the place of prayer." Her love for Anatole becomes her new anchoring force, replacing that of her father and his simplistic view vision of God.
~~ "In the world, the caring capacity for humans is limited. History holds all things in balance, including large hopes ad short lives." This is Adah's take on the notion of justice. And rather than despair over this state of affairs, she actually stands in awe of it, finding herself rooted no more passionately for the humans than any other of the major players in the global game of survival.
~~ "I am the unmissionary, as Adah would say, beginning every day on my knees asking to be converted." It is Leah expressing her guilt over being born white and American. In contrast to the missionaries, like her father and even her younger self - who sought to make the Africans just like the Westerners, imposing their values on them - Leah wants to assimilate entirely to the African culture around her. Her response is on an active level, to do all she can to minimize injustice. Yet she wants to distance herself as far as possible from those who are responsible for so much of it.
In conclusion, I would rank this novel among the best of contemporary fiction I have read/heard in many years. It has been an experience of vicarious pleasure for me, and if this very VERY senior citizen lives long enough to go to it once again - to be reopened to its cultural and spiritual conflicts, confusion and revelation, hunger and pleasure, cruelties and kindnesses, suffering and love, all combined with the day-to-day life in African villages to enrich this wondrous tale, then Barbara Kingsolver will have my everlasting gratitude.
This is a most rewarding book - a whooping good story told with tender majesty. The wisdom that Rachel, Adah, Leah, Ruth May, and Orleanna wrest from their lives is also mine ... and yours.
I'm currently about 1/2 way through my second read, and I rarely read a book twice. The story is told by turns from a missionary wife and her four young daughters, set in the Belgian Congo in the 50's. While it's an "historical novel" set against the backdrop of political unrest in that country, the focus is very much on the story of this missionary family's experience in a poor Congolese village. Kingsolver's characters are beautifully drawn, as always, and the reader captures each one's unique perspective through a careful reading of Kingsolver's wonderfully written prose. I only wish the reader would slow down a little to let us savor some of Kingsolver's gorgeous use of language. One of my favorite books of all time, and that's saying a lot.
I foolishly ignored all the reviews that said the narrator was horrible. I thought I'd see for myself. BIG mistake. The book is excellent and I highly recommend reading it. I started with the audible recording but soon became utterly disgusted with the narrator who has absolutely no imagination and must be someone's wife or friend owed a favor. But the story is a good one so I got the book and totallly loved it. Don't waste your time with this recording!
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
The Poisonwood Bible has been recommended to me several times over the past few years, and I can see why. It's full of heartfelt, lyrical imagery and parable-like insight into the tragedy of imperialism. The story centers on an unyielding Baptist preacher determined to spread his strict interpretation of the gospels in the Belgian Congo circa 1960, accompanied by his wife and four daughters. Each woman or girl has her own piece of the narrative, and shares her own reflections on the events that transpire as the stubborn Nathan Price beats himself against a land, culture, and superstitions that don't fit anyone's expectations, let alone cooperate with his vision of God's will.
The characters do feel intentionally symbolic, but the beautiful writing brings them vividly to life. Orleanna, the put-upon mother, acts as a buffer between her domineering husband and the needs of her children, and feels more and more disconnected from both. The vain eldest daughter, Rachel, plays the ugly American, uninterested in stepping outside her narrow comfort zone (though this, in a way, comes to serve her). Then there are the gifted twins, Leah and Adah. Strong-willed Leah gradually absorbs the Congo under her skin, while the silent, crippled Adah, a savant in arithmetic and the illuminating poetry of backwards phrases, sees truths only an outsider-from-birth can. Finally, there is the youngest daughter, the tomboyish Ruth, whose childish stream of consciousness holds its own insights.
As the story moves forward, tensions build among the Prices, and between the family and the villagers on whom Nathan's ministry is focused. Meanwhile, resentment towards whites in the rest of the country grows, as the Belgian pullout leaves a power vacuum that both nationalists and the CIA have different agendas for (though the politics is largely in the background). And nature offers up its own trials, as it always has. Around the midpoint of the novel, Things Fall Apart, and the six members of the Price family are pulled in different directions, to very different outcomes. Even in breakdown, though, there’s a poetic symmetry that I quite enjoyed, reminding me of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.
This is, at its heart, a novel about the recognition that we're all caught in our own struggles to survive and the lives of others may be beyond our control. Kingsolver eloquently explores that theme in both the personal and political sense. Could the Western world’s jealous protectionism of capitalism-as-we-know-it actually have stunted Africa's potential? She seems to recognize, through her protagonists, that we don't know how else things might have turned out had we left the continent more to itself, but is unequivocal that it deserved better than being made a pawn to our national interests.
Definitely "message" fiction, but I don't mind that if it’s written with skill, compassion, and intelligence, and such was the case here. To me, the only thing that was too heavy-handed was the device of having Rachel constantly misuse words for ironic effect. Okay, the poor girl’s not that bright, but give her a break.
Audiobook narrator Dean Robinson does a passable job, but I wish she’d done a little more to distinguish the sisters and had had a better grasp of different international accents. Listeners should pay close attention to the chapter headings to keep up with who’s telling each part of the story.
Actor/director/teacher. Split my time between Beijing and Seattle now. Listen to Audible on the subway and while driving. Love the reviews.
This is another book for which excellent listener reviews are already available but which I would like to call to the attention of anyone who may have missed them so far. (While I am on the subject, allow me to apologize to Westergren Viveca. The single negative response to her very interesting review came when my finger slipped. I wish Amazon would make it possible to correct such mistakes.)
One caveat. This is not a book which will slip easily into one ear while the other is atuned to traffic or a house full of distractions or the underdrone exigencies of a busy day. It is full of riches which will be missed by the casual listener. Perhaps this explains the problems some people have had with the narration. Dean Robertson brilliantly captures the rhythm, inflection and expressive idiosyncracies Kingsolver has written into these Georgia bred women and differentiates them in wonderful verisimilitude. Their words come alive in the voice of this gifted actor, and since the speaker is clearly named at the beginning of each chapter, no pyrotechnics of pitch or timbre are required to identify them. The result is a very truthful and telling characterization in every instance. Nor would a slower reading have served the text. These women do not speak slowly, savoring the poetry in their mouths. That bit of truth is one of the delights of this book. Just as with any really excellent piece of writing, there may be times when you want to go back. and dig a little deeper into the meaning and beauty. It is worth the time and effort.
That was a pretty long caveat, wasn't it! Sorry. But do consider treating yourself to Barbara Kingsolver's ravishing book sometime when you can really listen with both ears.
I enjoyed this book so much I didn't want it to finish. The story was amazingly in depth and very well researched.
Telling the story from the different female characters gave you an opportunity to become part of the book by relating to those characters as they grew and changed. You got to understand each character, and also how others saw them. The narator did a great job of differentiating between all the characters and this made it easy to immerse yourself into those individuals.
I loved it and contemplating listening again and bound the get more out of it second time around
My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.
Any American who was stationed overseas in the 50s, 60s, or 70s will find a lot to relate to here. Kingsolver's situation may have been more "rustic" than most, but the culture shock, the unpreparedness, the evolution of the connection with the locals, the unexpected effects on the children, the discovery that the locals are far more capable of running their own lives than the Americans imagined, the forces that keep the family together, and the (often stronger) forces that rip families apart, are all on display here. It doesn't matter if you were military or State Department or Peace Corps or missionaries. Kingsolver writes a fairly honest, balanced account of one family's experience through all of this. For those who weren't stationed overseas, this would be a good way to get an idea of what it was like. All of this is apart from the actual specific story Kingsolver is trying to tell. All I'll say about that is that it is a really well done example of what happens when idealism hits reality.
I loved this book, it took over every spare bit of my life whilst listening to it. The Congo part was interesting and enticing after Congo i believed it lost some interest and intrigue. I loved the narration,and the personalities portrayed. Plus it was a great learning tool about the Congo and the politics of which I knew nothing about.
Decided to listen to this one after listening to "Animal, vegetable, miracle" - did not get disappointed at all! The story is truly incredible and engrossing, even thought it's a totally different subject. Love BK's attention to detail and learned a lot about the history of Congo this time. Couldn't put the audio down and didn't want it to end.
The narrator's voice turned out to be very pleasant to listen as well.
Kingsolver is a skilled artist at weaving words together into a story with texture and color. I always feel enriched after reading one of her novels. The plot doesn't have to be about romance or mystery or history or fantasy. The story doesn't have to have a happy ending or tie up all the loose ends. It just has to connect with the human experience. Kingsolver knows how to connect.