The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver Harper Modern Classics 2005

The Poisonwood Bible (TPB) was a long standing New York Times best seller and the recipient of endless, well-deserved rave reviews; its very title surely attracted religious zealots and infidels alike, but it is much more a story about Africa than about the Bible. To live and breathe Africa and a missionary’s life there, you must read this brilliant novel.

The “poisonwood”, interestingly, refers to a shrub-like African tree, whose foliage, if touched, imposes a brutal skin rash, or, if burned, the smoke would literally kill those who inhaled it. TPB is a moving and educational story of a family of missionaries in the Congo – an alternately loving and menacing preacher, Nathan Price, and his long-suffering wife, Oreleanna, and their four daughters (ages 5-16 at the outset).

The technique of the presentation is novel and fascinating: the chapters are narrated, variously, by the wife and daughters, and, of course, each sees their African world very differently, and all are revealed in a continuum of thoughts, as each turns their minds inside out, stripping them of all pretense and privacy and laying them bare for the reader’s contemplation. The author characterizes them as being “bodies tight as bowstrings…on a different path to glory or damnation” and laments that their mother “had washed up on the Congo’s shores on the riptide of her husband’s confidence [that he could sell Christianity to African heathens] and the undertow of her children’s needs.”

Spanning three decades in their lives, and, although intentionally written primarily in teenager-English or adult-vernacular in need of paragraphing, the wealth of information about Africa and the family’s religious orientation, near death-collapse and stunning rehabilitation, presents an intriguing and educational epic. TPB begins slowly and gradually weaves a web of viscid intrigue around the reader, growing thicker and thicker, like hardening cement, finally cinching its noose around the reader’s neck, impairing breathing, inexorably consuming the reader’s attention.

Kingsolver challenges traditional views: “There is a great shifting terrain between righteous and what’s right…One has only a life of one’s own [author’s emphasis]…With no men around, everyone was surprisingly light hearted…The vote of the young should not count the same as the vote of the elder…Survival is continuous negotiation…Be kind to yourself…Being dead is not worse than being alive…it’s just different. You could say the view is larger…Happy families aren’t interesting [Tolstoy]…A novel is nothing but details [based on authentic scenes and events]…”

However, the story of the Price Family is oppressively negative: “Life is sorrow…Living, as a general enterprise, seems unkind beyond belief…I crave justice, forgiveness, redemption…I want to belong somewhere, damn it…There is nothing like your own family to make you appreciate strangers…Jesus is poisonwood…To live is to be marked…to change, to die one hundred deaths…The meek shall inherit nothing…I write about the noise in my brain. I clamp it to the page so it will be still…” Religion, as the title suggests, is one of the dominant themes: “Is religion a life insurance policy or a life sentence?...I could understand a wrathful God…and an unprejudiced Jesus, but I could never quite see the two of them living in the same house…As rigidly as their father [Nathan Price] followed some parts of the scripture (e.g., no swearing, no visible petticoats on women), when his common sense dictated it, he totally ignored other parts of his ‘infallible’ Bible [e.g., speaking in tongues, snake handling]…Girls who go to college are veering away from God’s plan…Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet…The exacting tyrannical God of my father has left me for good…” Her similes and metaphors are many and memorable: “Memories rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass…Messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions…a bubble of stopped conversations moved with me as I walked…”

The life that it presents in Africa is ghastly beyond comprehension: “The long drought led to the ants that drove us from our homes into the river to float perilously in tentative canoes among the crocodiles…Mosquitoes so thick they filled our mouths and nostrils; we breathed through our teeth to avoid choking on them; they left red welts all over us and under our clothing…My father’s vegetable garden, filled with seeds from the U.S. grew absolutely nothing as there were no ‘polinators’…The season of endless rains…snakes slithering everywhere...on my doorstep, snakes that could knock my child dead by spitting in her eyes… tarantulas hunkering down on the interior walls…A top-throb dreamboat was a 20-year-old male with all of his fingers, both feet and both eyes…Fufu, which means food and ‘manioc’ (a long white root that native women spend their days digging up, washing, scraping and boiling into a disgusting magma or paste) comprises 90% of the native diet, with coconuts, sugar cane and random fruits (in season), along with wild game, constitute the other 10%.... Manioc has the nutritional value of a paper bag and has traces of cyanide, but it fills the stomach…Mother drank four glasses of water before dinner to enable her to eat virtually nothing while her husband gorged himself; when pregnant, she secretly crawled into the yard at night to eat dirt… My mother and father hardened so differently, when they turned to stone…”

After the death of one daughter from a snake bite, the family’s fortunes slowly begin to improve. Kingsolver’s gripping description of daughter-Leah’s passionate love of her African husband gives us hope: “I was drugged with exotic delirium…by Anatole, I was shattered and then assembled…I was delivered not out of my life but through it…Love changes everything…Requited love, I should say, for I loved my father fiercely my whole life, and it changed nothing, but now, all around me, the flame trees have aroused from their long, dry sleep into walls of scarlet blossoms…I drink every kiss down to its end and still my mouth aches like a dry cave…I wake up in love…”

So, do we love this book? Yes, we love – and hate – it. It is a fascinating story of what can happen, and likely what has happened, to zealous Christians who became missionaries in still savage Africa. Her plots, characters, and morals ring as true as Saint Luis crystal, but she guilds no lilies. The lugubrious truth of ineffable privation, rejection, isolation and futility is difficult to withstand, but it is real and informative, and indubitably written by one who loves mankind and can accept the travails of life however raw they come. Barbara Kingsolver is a fascinating topic herself. The author of ten books, including four novels, short stories, poetry and essays, she is a native of Kentucky, who spent part of her youth in Africa. A biology and ecology major, she began writing twenty years ago, in her early thirties. In 2000, she received the National Humanities Medal, the U.S. highest honor for service through the arts. Her Poisonwood Bible will surely become a classic commentary on Africa.