"The Poisonwood Bible"

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This one is from my guilt list. It was published in 1998 and of course I saw it everywhere and heard it praised by everyone who read it. If it wasn't for this not-completely-sensible thing I have about avoiding hugely popular books, I could have enjoyed it long ago. Instead it went on the list of books I feel I should have read at some point in my life and there it stayed until a friend suggested it was too good to miss and I really should read it. So I did, and it was....epic.

The story begins in 1950 when evangelical Pastor Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to live and work at a small village mission. They are absolutely unprepared for this new life in spite of bringing with them everything they thought they would need, including cake mixes for the birthdays the girls would celebrate during their one year mission.

The girls range in age from four to fourteen and are mostly the responsibility of their mother, Orleanna, because children are considered woman's work. Nathan pretty much just preaches at them and doles out punishment when he thinks they need it. He isn't much of a husband or father, but he is true to what he feels is his calling: trying to get the African people to believe in God by beating them over the head with the gospel.

This is where I have a problem with this book. The plot technique used in many movies and books of making the professing Christians the "crazy" people, is becoming rather stale. This guy, Nathan Price, may know some lingo and have some Scripture memorized but that simply doesn't make a Christian. The lack of love and respect he shows his wife and daughters is not a true characteristic of a man who chooses a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. He's a self-centered, arrogant jerk. He may talk the talk, but, as always, actions speak louder than words. My point is, don't mistake the religion in this book for true Christianity.

Other than that it is a brilliant story. The authour tells it through the eyes of Orleanna and her girls in alternating chapters, which gives the reader an incredibly personal connection with them. They are believable characters, each with a very distinctive voice. I felt quite close to some of them; at least one I was happy to see the end of.

The story of the Price family is set against the larger political one of the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium. Themes include the status of women in African society and among white missionaries, marriage, and family dynamics, but freedom is the focus: for the Congo, freedom from Belgium; for Orleanna, freedom from Nathan's oppressive control; for the daughters, freedom to become individuals and choose their own lives. Running through it all is the intense daily struggle of the African people just to survive. It was a lot for any authour to take on but Kingsolver handled it all amazingly well. 

My favourite quote: "I decided right then and there to stop pretending I knew more than I did. ....Watching my father, I've seen how you can't learn anything when you're trying to look like the smartest person in the room."

I recommend this one highly. I waited too long to read it but once I got to it, it delivered. It is a powerful story and I do think you'll like it.


B said...

I'm in the same boat you were before you read this. I've always wanted to read it but haven't gotten around to it. I'm so happy you loved it! I'll have to pick it up sooner than later.

Ordinary Reader said...

By all means don't wait any longer. It's too darn good!

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