The first step to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is to overlook the opening line: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” (5) The book is better and more coherent after this line.
The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family into the Congo where they’re sent as missionaries in 1959. Nathan Price, the patriarch, is stubborn and bullish, alternately neglectful and abusive toward his wife and four daughters. He represents the worst type of missionary and struggles to gain influence. With a monthly stipend, the Prices are comparatively wealthy, but the payments are stopped when the Americans and Belgians are evacuated from the Congo as it declares independence. Despite making few inroads with the Congolese, Nathan Price refuses to allow his family to leave.
The Poisonwood Bible’s strongest element is its range of voices. While Orleanna Price (the mother) opens the novel, her four daughters carry the bulk of the narrative. You can pick a paragraph at random and know who is speaking. The difference in their voices can be subtle, but they all have attributes/quirks that are repeatedly mentioned:
- Rachel, the oldest at 16, is obsessed with her appearance and worries that she’s wasting her teen years. Her voice is marked by vanity and complaints. She frequently misuses words or phrases.
- Leah, Adah’s twin, is the most serious and most like her father. She’s keen to please him, but also willing to embrace Africa and its people. She sees value in Congolese traditions and respects people her father would cast aside.
- Adah, Leah’s twin, has a physical handicap and speaks little. She’s frequently underestimated, but her sections reveal a quick mind that’s perceptive and cynical. She’s the most capable of thinking outside herself: Rachel is too vain to do this, Leah is too pious, and Ruth May is too young.
- Ruth May, the youngest at 6, is adorable. Picture the little girl in Pixar’s Monster’s Inc.
Generally, each section advances the overall story though some events are given through multiple perspectives.
The main action spans roughly one year. After this period, the book continues in a sort of extended epilogue to reveal the book’s biggest weakness: As they age, the girls become exaggerated caricatures of their childhood selves. Characters aren’t obligated to learn, grow, or improve, but few adults are the same people they were at 16. As time passes in The Poisonwood Bible, the girls are downgraded from people to characters. In truly great books, this transition goes the other way. For example, Rachel experiences a few things that might shake up her vanity. During a natural disaster:
While everybody was running from the house, I cast around in a frenzy trying to think what to save. It was so dark I could hardly see, but I had a very clear presence of mind. I only had time to save one precious thing. Something from home. Not my clothes, there wasn’t time, and not the Bible—it didn’t seem worth saving at that moment, so help me God. It had to be my mirror. Mother was screaming us out the door with the very force of her lungs, but I turned around and shoved straight past her and went back, knowing what I had to do. I grabbed my mirror. (301)
And as one of her sisters later reminisces:
I can recall, years ago, watching Rachel cry real tears over a burn hole in her green dress while, just outside the door, completely naked children withered from the holes burning in their empty stomachs, and I seriously wondered if Rachel’s heart were the size of a thimble. (430)
At 50, she’s even more shallow. I can hear the apologists already: “Of course Rachel doesn’t change—that’s how she is!” It’s true that a lack of development is a sort of development, but everyone is static in this family. Maybe it can be chalked up to bad genes—the kids all sprouted from the one-dimensional Nathan Price—but it seems more a flaw in the writing. After all, if the kids displayed complicated thinking, their roles and the resultant lessons might be too subtle to catch. Kingsolver wants to hit you over the head with her point. The book reads like a fable with everyone in their role and demonstrating a basic lesson.
Some of these lessons, though well-intentioned, become problematic. After one of the daughters marries an African man, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her heritage. Rather than wrestle with the complication that her white skin sets her apart, as does her American identity, she claims to come from a country that “no longer exists” and is perennially surprised and irritated to be seen as white: “Do they not hear me hollering over the fence at my sons every day in the habitual, maternal accents of a native-born fishwife? The sight of my foreign skin seems to freeze their sensibilities.” (472) She identifies with the too-common plight of watching her children grow thin with hunger, but she doesn’t fear losing a child to preventable illness because her children were immunized on a trip to America. She also relies on her mother for well-placed bribes and pleas to Amnesty International to secure her husband’s early release from prison. She’s American when it’s convenient and African when she wants to be pure. She resents the privilege of her fellow Americans when she returns to the States, yet she can’t see her own in Africa. This would be less of an issue if she weren’t Kingsolver’s voice in the book to speak against U.S. and European meddling in Africa. As is, her lack of self-awareness and endless self-congratulations are tedious.
I should get to the good stuff since the first 375 pages (of 543) are excellent. Other reviewers have commented that Kingsolver, though never having visited the Congo, writes so convincingly that Poisonwood Bible reminds them of childhoods or missions there. As the Price family breaks down and embraces their new neighbors (to varying degrees), the revelations and shifts in perspective are earned and well-written. In the face of their newfound poverty, the Price girls exhibit imagination and compassion. The writing is lyrical and beautiful (except for that horribly opaque opening line).
Overall: 3.5 (out of 5) I could see bumping the score to a 4.0 if the book ended on page 375, but I’d want more closure than what’s offered at this point in the book. I remembered the end being rocky from reading it in HS, but I didn’t remember how rocky. Even though the characters disintegrated into superficial creations, I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know what would happen to them.
Translation: Read it, or part of it, but know that it’s a tough book to put down. Block out an afternoon or weekend if you plan to pick it up.