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.
Audible has a nifty little gift for its members: a free partial download from Henry Sayre’s monumental study, THE HUMANITIES: CULTURE, CONTINUITY AND CHANGE. I chose a section from book 6, chapter 41: “The Era of Invention.” For 34 minutes I was in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, listening to five outstanding narrators discuss Picasso and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon," Braque, Apollinaire, Matisse and the Fauves, Gertrude Stein and her Saturday evening salons, Duchamp and his descending nude, Igor Stravinsky and Nijinsky, atonal music, poly-rhythms, calligrams, inter-titles in silent films, collage and cubism, and much more.
Audible explains: “Study on the go with VangoNotes. Just download chapter reviews from THE HUMANITIES: CULTURE, CONTINUITY AND CHANGE, and listen to them on your mp3 player or most other devices. Wherever you are – whatever you’re doing – you can study by listening to the following guides for each chapter of your textbook: Voices – a glimpse into past cultures using first-person narratives; Big idea – your ‘need to know’ for each chapter; Practice Test – a gut check for the Big Ideas … tells you if you need to keep studying; Key Terms –Audio ‘flashcards’ to help you review key concepts and terms; Rapid Review – a quick drill session … use it right before your test. VangoNotes are flexible; download all the material directly to your player, or only to the chapters you need. And they’re efficient. Use them in your car, at the gym, walking to class, wherever. So get yours today and start studying.”
This should be good news for students, teachers, and anyone interested in brief presentations of enriching humanities studies by narrators with elegant voice quality, discipline of expression, flawless foreign word pronunciation, and an obvious passion for their subject.
“Manning is a former Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood to marry. He has recently divorced his wife. He is a recovering alcoholic who lapses every so often. He is a product of pop-psychology and Roman Catholic mystics rather than Scripture. He is on the cutting edge of the contemplation prayer movement which is steadily leading evangelicals toward Eastern mysticism. He is questionably a universalist who has nothing good to say about the church but adores AA. Yet somehow he is all the rage among many evangelicals.”
Wait a minute. What’s wrong here? I just finished reading THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL, Brennan Manning’s intensely intimate sharing about God’s unconditional love for “sinners” – the broken, the lost, the bedraggled, the hopeless, the burnt-outs and the cast-offs – and found myself wondering why he is the target of such attacks. After all, I consider RAGAMUFFIN as a life-changer, and am anxious to reread it and experience chapter 19, “Mercies: A Spiritual Retreat.” Surely this man is not the heretic portrayed by Dr. Gary Gilley.
A click quick to Wikipedia, and I found a more objective perspective:
“Born and raised in Depression-era New York City, Manning finished high school, enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and fought in the Korean War. When Manning returned to the United States, he enrolled at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. Upon his graduation from the seminary in 1963, Manning was ordained a Franciscan priest.
“In the late 1960s, Manning joined the Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucauld, a religious institute committed to an uncloistered, contemplative life among the poor. Manning transported water via donkey, worked as a mason's assistant and a dishwasher in France, was imprisoned (by choice) in Switzerland, and spent six months in a remote cave somewhere in the Zaragoza desert.
“In the 1970s, Manning returned to the United States and began writing after confronting his alcoholism.”
Oh … so Manning does seem to be hornless, responsible, even loving. Apparently Dr. Gilley is one in an opposition army that sees Manning as a threat to the stale Christianity of business as usual. But the former priest’s impressive bibliography of twenty-two bestselling books is, perhaps, indicative of a militia sustaining the same if not greater strength. People don’t buy books simply because they are decorative.
The thesis of THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL is that God’s love for all of us is relentless … intensely raging through Jesus Christ who unabashedly loves us ragamuffins. This Jesus accepts us just as we are – sins, warts, blemishes, ugliness, sexual darkness, disobedience, and every other brokenness to which mankind is prone. He invites himself to our dinner table, and in turn insists on eating at ours. He calls the worst of us to accepting the truth that we are his beloved, and fanatically insists that nothing can ever change that. He tells us that the source of this immense and accepting love is the grace of his Father and not the man-made country club rules that stink of rejection. He is constantly throwing dinner parties for us, seating us at the best places … and he never stops saying, “I love you. Do you love me?” He urges us to lay our head on his shoulder.
Yes, the Jesus of the four gospels is the Jesus who can do all things- all things except one: stop loving his ragamuffins. He says to us, “My grace [love] is sufficient for you,” and we respond to this transforming love by developing a passionate need to be just like him, giving away healing love without charging for it, sucking up the reality of our acceptance and newness in him, and loving every single minute of it.
The country club set – those walking refrigerators who insist on strict adherence to their admission rules before outsiders can even darken their doors – have more need of a ragamuffin gospel than anyone. Open those refrigerator doors and you will see shelves neatly packed with containers of food and drink. Sadly, most of them are stamped with an expiration date long past.
Saint Brennan closes THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL in thoughtful and profound appreciation of the grace that has consumed him:
“Sitting in bold relief on a navy-blue sofa in my office is a little polka-dotted rag doll. Over the last ten years, the ragamuffin mystery has laid hold of me with uncommon power. After long hours of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures and reflections on the nagging question ‘Who am I?’ a gracious God has given me the light to see myself as I really am. I now have a primary identity and a coherent sense of myself. It affects my intimacy with God, my relationships with others, and my gentleness with myself.
“Thus I want the epitaph on my tombstone to read:”
Yes, it’s true! The Nobel Prize laureate can be approached in confidence via a five-point formulary. This is possible because of Audible’s publication in 2010 of “Faulkner in Five Minutes,” released in conjunction with a new version of LIGHT IN AUGUST. A clever staff coterie of Audible’s Faulkner scholars produced five essential steps to a better understanding his writing. Considered by many to be “difficult” and even “inaccessible,” Faulkner’s genius can now be appreciated without the usual self-effacing conclusion that the reader is simply incapable of reaching such rich heights.
Audible’s quintessential elements are as follows: (1) complexity, (2) internal monologue, (3) innovation, (4) allegory, and (5) the South.
I submit that these steps apply to all of Faulkner’s novels, and will use AS I LAY DYING to illustrate my point.
1. Complexity [the condition of having many parts]. Often Faulkner’s stories use multiple narratives, each with its own interests and biases, which allows us to piece together the “true” circumstances of the story. The rather simple account is narrated from the point of view of fifteen characters, and frequenly jumps from incomplete thoughts of characters only to be resumed in later chapters. Addie Bundren dies and her dirt-poor Mississippi family honors her wish to be buried not on their land but in nearby Jefferson. Although each chapter is narrated by a member or friend of the family - and the outward journey in a mule-driven wagon fraught with trials - ,even these are always secondary to the interior, often confusing, and usually dark revelations of the characters.
2. Internal monologue [also known as inner voice, internal speech, or stream of consciousness wherein the author shows non-linear thinking processes]. A very brief but powerful example occurs in chapter 19, the entire section consisting of no more than young Vardaman’s inner thoughts: “My mother is a fish.” When Addie dies, the boy instinctively focus on his family eating a fish he caught that was chopped up and cooked for the family.
Dewey Dell, the daughter, when she is with Doc Peabody, internally speaks: “He could do so much for me if he just would. He could do everything for me. It’s like everything in the world for me is inside a tub full of guts, so that you wonder how there can be any room in it for anything else very important. He is a big tub of guts and I am a little tub of guts, how can it be room in a little tub of guts. But I know it is there because God gave women a sign when something has happened bad.”
3. Innovation [something new, better, or different]. Faulkner often told his stories using multiple narratives, each with its own complexities, which allow us to piece together the “true” circumstances of the story, not as clues in a mystery, but as different melodies in a piece of music that develops to a crescendo. The effect is like a key to understanding what surrounds the central event in a way that traditional linear narratives are unable to accomplish.
The reader is jolted when even Addie, who dies early in the novel, “internalizes” from her coffin: “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward. And so I have cleaned up my house. With Jewel – I lay by the lamp, holding up my own head, watching him cap and suture it before he breathed – the wild blood boiled away and the sound of it ceased. Then there was only the milk, warm and calm, and I lying calm in the slow silence, getting ready to clean my house.”
4. Allegory [a symbolic expression of meaning in a story]. One of Christianity’s symbols is the Jesus fish (ichthys) . We recall that when Addie dies, Vardaman associates her with his fish, which he has just killed and cleaned. When Vardaman focuses on his family eating the fish, we cannot help but think of Jesus and the Last Supper when He has his disciples eat his flesh and drink his blood.
And during the disastrous river crossing it is not difficult to associate Addie’s coffin heaving up out of the water as a possible symbol of resurrection.
5. The South [geological, ecological, sociological – the background against which everything in Faulkner’s canon occurs]. Most of his novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County, an imaginary area in Mississippi with a colorful history and richly varied population. The county is a microcosm of the South as a whole, and Faulkner’s novels examine the effects of the dissolution of traditional values and authority on all levels of Southern society.
One of the primary themes is the abuse of blacks by the Southern whites. Because Faulkner’s novels treat the decay and anguish of the South since the Civil War, they abound in violent and sordid events. Chapter 52, in which the family approaches the town of Jefferson, exemplifies the brooding presence of the South in a state of violent transition. The Bundren clan encounters three black men and a white overseer walking beside the road. A verbal (and obviously racial) conflict erupts between them and the Bundrens, and turns deadly dangerous as a knife is suddenly drawn. Only through the efforts of Dewey Dell and Darl is bloodshed avoided.
I enjoyed working on this review and applying Audible's 5 Minute formula to re-vist AS I LAY DYING. In closing, I salute the Audible group that has contributed an important resource to those seeking admission to the Faulknerian banquet. Their work is appreciated, and this reviewer for one certainly hopes the brevity of such a significant contribution does not relegate it to oblivion.
Addiction to pornography has exploded in epidemic proportions, infiltrating churches and holding our pastors, friends, and family members prisoner. But no one – not even the Church – is talking about this dangerous and destructive addiction.
DIRTY LITTLE SECRET follows Pastor Craig Gross as he breaks the silence and begins his ministry, XXXchurch.com, a website devoted to fighting pornography. As he meets people in the industry and those addicted to porn, Craig exposes the very real human face of pornography and the destructive physical, emotional, and spiritual toll it takes. DIRTY LITTLE SECRET plainly reveals the addictive lure of pornography, explores the pain and brokenness it causes, and challenges us as individuals and as the Church to talk about and openly fight pornography. Its thesis: Don’t be tempted to keep this secret any longer, but roll up your sleeves and do something about it … to help at least one person break free.
Craig Gross takes the time to tell his story and display the very human face of porn addicts and the stars they idolize. He does an excellent job of laying out the growing problems facing our culture without being overly dramatic, preachy, or needlessly graphic. The book effectively communicates an important message: The suffocating prison of pornography can only be battled by the hard, frustrating work of genuinely loving people.
Many will say porn is harmless … I always knew it was not, but Craig Gross makes a most powerful anecdotal case for its poisonous grip on our entire culture. I suspect that many if not most Americans will at least admit that our society is one in which we are constantly bombarded with sex. Many will say porn stars have made their own choice, but Gross gets into the nuances of an aggressive industry that hunts unwitting victims. Most pastors wouldn’t venture where Pastor Gross has, but he and his XXX Church embrace this devastation to keep grace and hope alive for the victims of the porn pandemic.
Having once had a major issue with pornography, I am sadly familiar with much of the subject matter of this book. Gross writes about the harm of the porn industry in a matter-of-fact way, which cuts through all the stereotypes of the business and its workers and shows the raw truth of how horrible the world on the inside can be. The big glitzy stars in this world exist in only the top ten percent, and age is their biggest enemy. The countless other actors usually will do anything to just pay the bills. Drugs are a way of life to help most of these people get through a day on the set; women in particular are often treated like cheap cuts of rotting meat
Don't get me wrong. Admittedly this book is very one-sided and focuses on the worst-case scenarios to emphasize the author’s point. However, it is also directed at those who know, at least to some degree, that they have a problem with porn. This is the dousing of cold water these people need to understand – that even when it seems as if no victims exist, they certainly do.
The strength of DIRTY LITTLE SECRET is the moving behind-the-scenes stories it contains - many tragic, and others ultimately triumphant. It strips the glamour away and perfectly captures the horror that the porn industry inflicts on its own. For example, I will never forget the mental image of a porn actress curled up in the fetal position, sucking her thumb in anguish at the end of a video shoot. It is the revelation of these inside glimpses that make the book a must read for anyone concerned about the porn industry, and also for everyone dismayed with the sexualization of our society.
The author is the first to admit how hard this kind of education can be. He knows the criticism of his annual visits to porn conventions. He's aware of the hype around his unorthodox witness to a shady world that even many Christians condemn in public but enjoy in private. This isn't a book about how to stop porn addiction or all its scary statistics. It isn't even a book that pits good against bad. It simply exposes the worst parts of the industry and how badly it hurts countless everyday people.
I am encouraged that this author does not avoid the truth. Some critics say he only discusses the extreme cases. But every porn star and porn addict is an extreme case waiting to happen, or for whom it is already too late. The most heartbreaking chapter of the book involves Carter, a young journalist who is allowed on set to watch twenty-one year old Ariana film a porno scene so he can write a feature story. Carter and she are the same age. Things begin almost innocently enough as he meets the porn stars before the shoot in an almost normal atmosphere, but they go downhill quickly. Carter cannot finish watching. He drives home, pulls over, and bursts into tears about what he has seen …even imagining what it would be like if he were Ariana. He will never be the same again. Reading this chapter, I felt depressed about Carter and Ariana, both broken by the selfish desires of a cruel inhuman business.
Gross also shares a story about a Christian involved in top ministry who started looking at porn, then went to strip clubs where he became involved in private dances with the dancers, and ultimately moved on to escorts. He began to seek more and more illicit satisfaction, developing darker cravings, exposing himself to disease, the perverse, the painful, sinking deeper into a vortex of unbelievable depravity. He has spent over $20,000, and is terrified of being exposed. And it all started with that first porn experience.
“If I had just one person to confide in, this would all stop tomorrow,” he says. “I know it because I don’t want to do this any longer. I have kids now. I have a ministry. I have people who look up to me, and I feel like they don’t know me. Sin has controlled me and it sucks.”
Gross asks why this man and others like him just don’t tell someone and try to get help. The answer is almost always the same – the fear and shame of exposure, loss of employment and respect, the pain of hurting those who love him most and the emptiness of life without them
I have read many books about the destructive effects of pornography, and I found this one to be concise and straight-forward. What I especially like about Craig Gross and XXXChurch is their approach of love and grace, and their invitation to healing conversation about the taboo topic of porn, a topic that has touched most of us one way or another.
Gross goes on to write:
“Christians and other religious establishments send a cold message to sexual addicts. Sexual addicts are left with the options of accepting their behaviors and facing the emptiness or dealing with being pegged as a freak. From the point of view of a sexual addict, they only see judgment and harsh punishments when confronted with the options of confessing everything and changing. They fear being ostracized – like once they come clean, they need to knock on their neighbors’ doors or get up in front of a congregation and admit they look at porn and be forever branded a sexual deviant. What has happened to grace?”
Indeed, what HAS happened to grace? For instance, is it appropriate to fire pastors and youth pastors when they confess to looking at pornography as some churches have done? Does that help or hurt? Would we treat other types of harmful behavior this way?
Gross is writing to help the Church talk about a subject she by which she is ravaged, but thinks too embarrassing or dangerous to discuss. Christians, through fear, self-righteousness or ignorance, often demonize those touched by porn. Gross shows them (rightfully so in my opinion) as people made in the image of God—but also as hopeless and undone humans who, through their own inappropriate choices, now need His redemption.
DIRTY LITTLE SECRET reveals the personal stories of several actors in the business, emphasizing a strong conclusion that many want out, but feel trapped and helpless. (Would you or I befriend a porn star with the intent of helping her/him to leave the industry? Are you or I willing to put our own reputations on the line to rescue another human that most people see as the scum of the earth?) Unless at least the Church is a safe place to at least talk about the problem of porn and its solutions, those affected in any way by pornography will most likely continue to be enslaved.
To educate his readers, Gross takes us to the porn set, to the porn convention, to the erotic museum, and to “porn prison” (a live-in treatment facility). The people are portrayed as unusually complex and needy human beings. And after 160 pages, we are left with the conviction that as God’s people we all need to be more approachable, kinder, and gracious to those trapped by porn. At the same time, we must be more proactive and aggressive in dealing with this devouring giant. This is the giant of giants who promises everything but gives only living or actual death in return. This is the giant who preys on the innocent and jaded alike. This is the giant who is at the core of a currently annual thirteen-billion dollar industry in our country alone.
Why did Craig Gross write a book that is certain to offend, yet hopefully enlighten? In his own words:
“My hope and prayer is that we keep love out in front of people as we expose America’s dirty little secret. God didn’t ask me to create definitions or long drawn-out dissertations on the porn problem. He wanted one thing: honest conversation, getting to know those who have been affected by porn. So understand that you have made choices with your life, about what you think and what you do. If your definition of porn finds itself on a sliding gray scale, chances are you need to get up and start talking to someone about your own dirty little secret. Or, if you can’t see the hurting individuals trapped in porn, it’s time to at least love them and encourage them to talk about their secrets.”
William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel, AS I LAY DYING, in only six weeks in 1929. It was published after very little editing in 1930. The novel tells the story of the Bundren family traveling to bury their dead mother. The novel is famous for its experimental narrative technique, which Faulkner began in his earlier book, THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Fifteen characters take turns narrating the story in streams of consciousness over the course of fifty-nine, sometimes overlapping sections.
At the time, Faulkner’s novel contributed substantially to the growing Modernist movement. He was no doubt influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, whose theories about the subconscious were made increasingly popular in the 1920s. Faulkner’s novel regards subconscious thought as more important than conscious action or speech; long passages of italicized text within the novel would seem to reflect these inner workings of the mind. His prolific career in writing is marked by his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature and two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1955 and the other in 1962.
AS I LAY DYING is the story of the Bundren family who live in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Addie and Anse Bundren have five children: Darl, Jewel, Cash, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman.
The Bundren family is extremely poor, and Addie is terminally ill. Cash Bundren builds his mother’s coffin, and while Darl and Jewel are visiting a neighbor, Addie dies. The youngest son, Vardaman, is extremely distressed at his mother’s death. This trauma stems from the large fish he has just caught and cleaned, breaking it down into pieces which he no longer sees as fish. Thus he decides that his mother in death is no longer his mother, or even a person, but something that does not truly exist any longer… the fish.
Being so upset at his mother’s death and the fact that she is now nailed in a box, he drills holes in it for her and accidentally drills her face. While the others are mourning the death of Addie, her daughter Dewey Dell is distracted by her unwanted (and unknown to others) pregnancy by a local farm hand named Lafe.
Addie had requested she be buried in Jefferson, which is a grueling trek for the family to make, but Anse decides they must do it. The family sets off on their journey in a wagon pulled by mules, and loses or trades just about everything they own along the way.
The story is told from the point of view of all the characters, including the post-humus Addie, and many carefully-guarded secrets are revealed. The Bundrens encounter several obstacles on their journey, including the near-loss of Addie more than once. It is mostly through the interior monologues that we gradually absorb the psychologically complex personality of each character. The inevitable conclusion is that everyone has skeletons in the closet, and will go to incredible lengths to conceal them.
This is not a happy novel. Dark themes of identity, reality, death, poverty, suffering, religion, family, isolation, and sanity are shadowed on every page.
There is one especially intrusive theme which demands particular mention: the major theme of the absurdity of life. The main event in the novel, the family journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, is a huge joke, reminding the reader that life is indeed absurd - nothing more, nothing less. Addie wants the family to bring her body to Jefferson, not because she truly wants to be buried there but because she wants her family to make that pointless journey as a means of revenge for forcing her to live the boring domesticated life that she has lived for so long. The entire event is a pointless journey with no meaning whatsoever. Addie intensely felt that absurdity, and thus it was her final joke to make the family do something with no rhyme or reason to prove her point.
No discussion of William Faulkner is complete without an example of the naked beauty of the prose and poetry found within the interior thinking of his characters:
“I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land. I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin.”
~~ Addie Bundren, describing her adultery.
Finally, if this review has stimulated you to visit or revisit Faulkner, but you have reservations predicated on negative comments by others, I urge you to consider AS I LAY DYING, one of his most accessible and rewarding novels. Having done my Master’s thesis on Faulkner in 1969, I daresay I have at least an average familiarity with his works. Forty-three years later that familiarity has been deepened by Audible’s four-narrator tour de force of this book. To experience the visual richness of style, consider reading a print version while you listen.
(Incidentally, my Vintage Books edition cost $1.65 in 1969!)
Black Hawk. Everyone has heard of Black Hawk one way or another, the most prominent being the United States Army Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, in addition to the renowned film “Black Hawk Down,” a 2001 American drama war film depicting the Battle of Mogadishu, a raid integral to the United States' effort to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The film features a large ensemble cast, including Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner and Sam Shepard….
Four United States navy vessels were named “USS Black Hawk”; the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League indirectly derive their name from Black Hawk, and most of us know of the Waterloo Black Hawks USHL hockey team….
There are several geographical names, among which are Black Hawk County, Iowa; the Black Hawk Bridge between Iowa and Wisconsin; and the historical Black Hawk Purchase in Iowa. There is also Black Hawk Community College in Illinois and even the Black Hawk Country Club, a private golf club in Madison, Wisconsin….
And not to be overlooked are the athletic teams of Prairie du Chien High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. These eponyms and others ensure that the name of Black Hawk will remain indefinitely on the tongue of most Americans.
But who exactly was Black Hawk?
Black Hawk, or Black Sparrow Hawk (Sauk Makataimeshekiakiak "be a large black hawk") was born in the village of Saukenuk on the Rock River, in present-day Rock Island, Illinois, in 1767. Black Hawk's father Pyesa was the tribal medicine man of the Sauk people. The Sauk people used the village in the summer for raising corn and as a burial site, while moving across the Mississippi for winter hunts and fur trapping.
Little is known about Black Hawk's youth. He was said to be a descendant of Nanamakee, a Sauk chief who, according to tradition, met an early French explorer, possibly Samuel de Champlain. At age 15, Black Hawk accompanied his father Pyesa on a raid against the Osages, and won the approval of his father by killing and scalping his first enemy. The young Black Hawk then tried to establish himself as a war captain by leading other raids, but met with limited success until, at age 19, he led 200 men in a battle against the Osages, in which he personally killed five men and one woman. Soon after, he joined his father in a raid against Cherokees along the Meramec River in Missouri. After Pyesa died from wounds received in the battle, Black Hawk inherited the Sauk medicine bundle that had been carried by his father.
Following an extended period of mourning for his father, Black Hawk resumed leading raiding parties over the next years, usually targeting the Osages. Black Hawk did not belong to a clan that provided the Sauks with civil leaders, or “chiefs.” He instead achieved status through his exploits as a warrior, and by leading successful raiding parties.
As a consequence of an 1804 treaty between the Governor of Indiana Territory and a group of Sauk and Fox leaders regarding land settlement, the Sauk and Fox tribes ceded their lands in Illinois and moved west of the Mississippi in 1828. Black Hawk and other tribal members disputed the treaty, claiming that the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands. Angered by the loss of his birthplace, between 1830 and 1831 Black Hawk led a number of incursions across the Mississippi River. He was persuaded to return west each time without bloodshed.
In April 1832, encouraged by promises of alliance with other tribes and the British, he moved his so-called "British Band" of more than 1500 people, both warriors and non-combatants, into Illinois. Finding no allies, he attempted to return to Iowa, but the undisciplined Illinois militia's actions led to the Battle of Stillman's Run. A number of other engagements followed, and the militias of Michigan Territory and Illinois were mobilized to hunt down Black Hawk's Band. The conflict became known as the Black Hawk War, which gave impetus to the US policy of Indian removal, in which Native American tribes were pressured to sell their lands and move west of the Mississippi River.
Black Hawk spurned this unhappy armistice, and in a subsequent conflict between the Foxes and the Menominees, some of the Foxes sought his assistance. The smoldering resentment of the younger men fired Black Hawk's spirit: he would go back to his homeland and show the Americans and Keokuk he could not be vanquished.
This resistance only intensified the tragic conflict of the Black Hawk War. From April until August 1832, Black Hawk and his followers fought, but the American military, swollen by volunteers including miners, farmers, and even a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, was too much for them. Black Hawk's defiant trail ended on August 3 in Wisconsin with the massacre of dozens of his people. He escaped but was later captured.
Along with several other prominent Indian leaders, he was taken back east after the war by order of President Andrew Jackson. He, White Cloud, and eight other Indian leaders traveled by all forms of current transportation on a tour of cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. The crowds that met them at their destinations went wild seeing the famous Indian leaders. They were a huge spectacle to all who saw them on their journey. (Many historians still insist that he was paraded through the larger cities as a “war trophy,” although his AUTOBIOGRAPHY seems to indicate otherwise.)
More to the point of this discussion, however, is the fact that in 1833 Black Hawk created the AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Also published as Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, the book is the Sauk and Fox Indian warrior’s attempt to present his version of the events of the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk dictated his story to Antoine Le Claire, a government interpreter at Fort Armstrong, and the journalist J. B. Patterson added contemporary literary flourishes for its publication. To settle a dispute over the authenticity of the autobiography, Donald Jackson published his research in a 1955 edition of the book, concluding that the work did indeed come from Black Hawk. The text is considered invaluable because of its Native American perspective on the war.
After his tour of the east, Black Hawk lived with the Sauk along the Iowa River and later the Des Moines River, in what is now southeast Iowa. At the end of his life he attempted reconciliation with both the whites he had fought and with his Sauk rivals, including Keokuk:
“It has pleased the Great Spirit that I am here today— I have eaten with my white friends. The earth is our mother— we are now on it, with the Great Spirit above us; it is good. I hope we are all friends here. A few winters ago I was fighting against you. I did wrong, perhaps, but that is past—it is buried—let it be forgotten.
“Rock River was a beautiful country. I liked my towns, my cornfields and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did— it will produce you good crops.
“I thank the Great Spirit that I am now friendly with my white brethren. We are here together, we have eaten together; we are friends; it is his wish and mine. I thank you for your friendship.
“I was once a great warrior; I am now poor. Keokuk has been the cause of my present situation; but I do not attach blame to him. I am now old. I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now. I shake hands with you, and as it is my wish, I hope you are my friends.”
—--Address by Black Hawk, July 4, 1838, at Fort Madison.
Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838 after two weeks of illness, and was buried on the farm of his friend James Jordan on the north bank of the Des Moines River in Davis County.
In July 1839, his remains were stolen by James Turner, who prepared his skeleton for financial exhibition. Black Hawk’s sons Nashashuk and Gamesett went to Governor Robert Lucas of Iowa Territory, who used his influence to bring the bones to security in his offices in Burlington. With the permission of Black Hawk's sons, the remains were held by the Burlington Geological and Historical Society. When the Society's building burned down in 1855, Black Hawk’s remains were destroyed.
Blackhawk’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a riveting tale of American history, told from a frequently ignored perspective, that of the Indian’s side of the story… and the first of which we know. Americans have always been fascinated by Indians and Indian history, and this is a book that adds their proud saga as an important square to the quilt of what is often described as the Native American Midwest.
“… and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. Federal officers, including those of the Armed Forces, will put themselves under the orders of the governors of the various states or of any other functioning local authority. By order of the Acting President. God save the people of the United States …”
With this radio announcement from the Bay Area Emergency Council that the West Oakland Hospitalization Center has been abandoned, and that its functions, including burials at sea, are now concentrated at the Berkeley Center, the modern reader is immediately propelled into a dark reality with which he is no stranger. George R. Stewart wrote his award-winning novel EARTH ABIDES in 1949 at the beginning of the Cold War when most people thought of our apocalypse as nuclear in nature. Today, however, the 2012 reader seems to have accepted not only this catastrophic possibility, but also others that have since infected the planet, including AIDS, Ebola, various flu pandemics, economic collapse, and global warming.
In EARTH ABIDES, civilization is brought down by a virus of nightmarish lethality. The people are dead; most of the bodies are buried or collected in the last places where emergency services were available. It is all very orderly. In this version of doomsday, we died well and left the place tidy. The lights are still on. There are no roving bands of criminals or cannibals, no zombies or mutants or cyborgs or nose-twitching apes intent upon ruling the world. There’s only one man alone. And that is as fine a way as any to begin a post-apocalyptic story.
So, there he is – Isherwood Williams, called “Ish” - a graduate student at Berkeley, studying the ecology of an area in the mountains, somewhere in California. The people are gone but the supplies and infrastructure of civilization are still intact. The first part of the book follows Isherwood as he explores the realities and limits of his vast new cage. No armageddon story is complete with a road journey, and Ish drives to New York City. He meets a few people along the way, but they are not the sort he would like to spend his life with, so he moves on. Without an external threat, and with enough groceries to last many lifetimes (mostly canned goods from local stores), people have no immediate reason to band together.
But of course they do band together. We are social creatures, and this unpredictable strength shapes the brilliant core of the book. Ish returns to California. He marries, fathers children, and eventually becomes leader of a small band of people. But his primary concern is how to begin the process of rebuilding modern civilization. This is the central obsession of his life, and he’s consumed over the decades to find ways to plant the seeds that will bring it all back.
More than twenty years pass, and eventually Ish the intellectual comes to the conclusion that teaching the old ways of “the Americans” to the children of the Tribe is a futile endeavor. They see little value in learning about academic topics that might help to restore a civilization to which only Ish gives value. Confronting the reality that he is not a nation builder, and after a typhus epidemic in the community, he decides instead to teach his people simply to survive. He worries about what will become of them when ammunition and matches are gone, and he inspires the children to makes bows and arrows, as well as to ignite fire through friction. The “Quick Years” pass, and soon Ish is the last American in the Tribe.
The book is rich in themes and symbolism. The biblical comparisons are inevitable but thought provoking. In addition, it would be impossible to be unaware of a persistent emphasis on such ecological considerations as biological controls on population, the idea that the number of human species subjects the world to artificial selection, and that such groups allow human diversity and the shaping of cultural customs.
Throughout the novel, Stewart takes the opportunity to tell how the remnants of the old civilization manage to decay in a predictable manner from how we know of things today. In this way, we are told – in italicized asides – how each of the basics of our present day foundations will ultimately erode and force adaptation by the Tribe to new needs. Unfortunately, this special italic formatting is not apparent in the excellent narration. ( I was, however, able to enjoy the effect through the purchase of an inexpensive print copy.)
Like many elderly Americans still alive in 2012, I am surviving in a culture that becomes increasingly alien to me as each day passes. The global economy continues to worsen, the impending national election campaign demolishes the cherished values with which I grew up, and I begin to wonder if I will really awaken on December 22. If for no other reasons than these, EARTH ABIDES has become my personal story. I can well relate to those fellow readers who insist that this is a story one will desire to savor in a future which can promise only change, for better or worse.
The story of Isherwood Williams’ large failures and small successes is as engaging as any quest in fiction. And the inevitable death, not only of America and all of modern civilization, but even firsthand reports of it, brings a long-burning and somehow satisfying sorrow that most similar books cannot match.
“Men go and come, but earth abides” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
Most people who read this review will be familiar with the parable of “The
Prodigal Son” - sometimes translated as “The Lost Son” - to be found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 15. Jesus is delivering a stinging rebuke to
the Pharisees and Scribes for accusing Him of receiving sinners and eating
with them. In verses 11-32, He tells one of the most compassionate stories in the Bible. (Parables were allegorical stories that a mostly illiterate populace could easily understand.)
In brief, the story tells of the younger son in a family who demands his inheritance from his father. (Compare Deuteronomy 21:17.) This son leaves for a distant land, where he squanders all in debauchery, has to take up the work of herding swine, and is even reduced to hungering for the food of swine. He finally comes to his senses and decides to return home, if only to work for his father as a hired laborer. As he nears home, his father takes the positive step of welcoming him, even holding a feast. The older brother, who had remained at home working, resents the mercy shown. But the father says that they should rejoice because the son who was dead now lives.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming, Nouwen develops a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of the same title into a personal spiritual odyssey. Inspired by the painting (he spent four days seated in front of the original in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage), he skillfully dissects each section of the powerful gospel drama in the light of his own life journey.
As the painting took on a personal resonance, he began to see in it the heart of the story that God wanted to tell him. The Prodigal Son became for Nouwen a mysterious window that exposed the kingdom of God in an intimate way. He was now able to see the fallen world through the eyes of God’s redeeming love… God as our forgiving Father. This introspection, as he pondered Rembrandt’s portrayal, eventually led him to living with and ministering to the mentally disabled.
He taught that it takes enormous energy to keep saying "no" to the world’s powers. Our hope lies in finding something so real and attractive that we can devote all our energies to saying "yes." That "something" is the fact that God continues to love us unconditionally, even in our brokenness….our addiction.
“Addiction" might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world's delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in 'the distant country,' leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father's home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in ‘a distant country.’ It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.”
Nouwen invites believers to enter a deep, internal relationship with Jesus Christ where inner healing and disposal of psychological and emotional baggage are confessed as liberation.
In another part of the book, he relates:
“Each little step toward the center seemed like an impossible demand, a demand requiring me to let go one more time from wanting to be in control, to give up one more time the desire to predict life, to die one more time to the fear of not knowing where it all will lead, and to surrender one more time to a love that knows no limits.... I would never be able to live the great commandment to love without allowing myself to be loved without conditions or prerequisites.
“Herein lies the essence of the gospel: God is for us! It confronts us with the fact that… truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place beyond earning, deserving, and rewarding. It is the place of surrender and complete trust."
The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming expresses Nouwen’s personal "homecoming" journey that answered his lifelong question of identity. Before he died in 1996 he discovered that he is the one Jesus loves unconditionally. His book carries the hopeful message that God’s healing love for us is always available — all we have to do is receive it.
Some who are reading this review have been dumped into the societal designation of "baby boomers," children of the spoils of World War II. Others, including me, preceded this grouping by being born as "Depression babies," infants whose emotional and physical sense of life was defined by the constant awareness of deprivation - if not dire poverty - that metastasized with the stock market crash of 1929. Although even the boomers will be fascinated with the life of a second-rate traveling circus in the early 1930s, the old folks who survived the destruction of the Great Depression will no doubt have special memories of those days, recollections still to be experienced through all the senses as portrayed in Sara Gruen's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.
In this novel we encounter the lives of management, performers, roustabouts, and various other classifications, all part of the Benzini Brothers Circus. The plot is simple enough: Jacob Jankowski is now in his 90s, a denizen of a nursing home for which he has a strong dislike. A circus has come to town and is setting up close to the home. The possibility of attending a performance creates an atmosphere of excitement among the residents, an atmosphere which suddenly has Jacob reminiscing about his youth when he was a 23-year old veterinary science student about to take his exams and graduate from Cornell. But his parents are killed in an automobile accident, leaving him penniless and without a home (mortgaged to finance his education). In grief and despair, he hops an open train car, unaware that it is the Benzini Circus Train.
The narrative shifts from old Jacob's point of view to that of young Jacob throughout the novel, carrying with each transition all the background elements which often shock us into the unexpected ruthlessness of the past's impact upon the present. At times, especially approaching chapter closings, a slightly out-of-tune piano can be heard in the background. Sometimes the music is casually strummed from a guitar; at others, a small ensemble of instruments is barely audible. It is a pleasant emergence for the listener, a reminder that the narrative is as unified as the music.
As we are introduced to a colorful and intriguing cast of characters, young Jacob gets a bottom rung job with the circus, eventually moving up to the favored position of circus vet. When Jacob meets the Equestrian Director (ringmaster) August and his lovely wife Marlena, a love triangle develops. Marlena is a spectacular trainer of and performer with horses, as well as the elephant Rosie. Inevitably, this triangle has consequences.
But these consequences pale in comparison to what happens when the survivors of a "red-lighting" catch up with the train. Red-lighting is a method used to get rid of unwanted circus workers without paying them. In the novel, this term is used quite a bit and refers to August's method of disposing of workers. He simply has Blackie "red light" them, thus throwing them from the moving train.
The obviously well-researched circus jargon employed in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is one of its most distinctive and rich features. I have used two examples in the title of this review: coochie girls are "exotic dancers," aka "strippers" who perform with the circus. Many also dispense sexual favors for money to the rubes (locals), as does Barbara, the main coochie dancer. A roustabout is a circus workman who does the heavy labor of setting up and breaking down the show.
All of the glitz, lights, sounds, smells and financial chicanery of the circus are to be found in this novel. We meet unforgettable characters who at times seem symbolic of the Depression miseries surrounding them. We are witnesses to horrific acts of murder and animal cruelty, while at the same time elevated and humbled when observing gestures of near-sacrificial kindness among the poorest in this circus family.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is narrated by two sterling professionals: David LeDoux as young Jacob, and John Randolph Jones as the aging nonagenarian. It is total pleasure to listen to both bring Sara Gruen's measured and vibrant prose to such an aurally sensitive intensity. If I have any criticism of this this audio presentation, it is perhaps that the character of Marlena might have been portrayed with more tone color and richness by Mr. LeDoux, although admittedly a small point of consideration in his overall splendid performance.
The novel was given, among other distinctions, the Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Fiction (2007), ALA Alex Award (2007), The Quill Award Nominee for General Fiction (2006), and remained on the New York Times Best Seller List for 84 weeks, many of them as number one in the fiction category.
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