Doorstopper of the Month: A Reread of The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”

You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.

Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:

  • It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
  • One of the sisters marries an African.
  • The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).

 


Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:

  • Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
  • The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
  • Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
  • Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
  • The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
  • The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
  • Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
  • We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.

 

What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”

I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.

 

 


English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.

 

Our Father speaks for all of us

Our Father knows what’s best for us as well

 

He planted a garden where poisonwood grew

He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew

that the seeds that filled his pockets

would grow and grow without stopping

his beans, his Kentucky Wonders

played their part in tearing us asunder.

 

Our mother suffered through all of this

Our mother carried the guilt

Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us

Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.

 

Page count: 615

My rating:

33 responses

  1. You’re making me wonder if I should reread this. I read it when it was first published quite some time ago but found it very unwieldy with so many narrative voices but I think that may have been because I’d loved Kingsolver’s previous, much simpler, novels so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought all the voices were wonderfully crafted, and fit seamlessly together to tell the story. I had forgotten just how distinctive they all are, which must have been difficult to manage.

      I’ve tended to prefer her later novels. I didn’t really like The Bean Trees, but I’m going to try its sequel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s their sense of place, for me. I have very fond memories of that part of the States.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard a lot about Poisonwood Bible but I’ve never actually seen a review on it, somehow. I’m quite curious about the story now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It got a lot of buzz back in the late 90s but I guess has been slightly forgotten about over the years. It is well worth going back to!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a book I’ve only read relatively recently. Something about its doorstopper-ness put me off giving it a go. But yes, you’e right. This is a richly rewarding book that deserves to be re-read, because it has layers that I will have missed first time round.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I found it no trouble to read 40-50 pages a day, alongside lots of other books, to finish it by a self-imposed deadline. All the best doorstoppers feel much shorter than they are.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a book that I have had on my list for a reread – like you, I rarely reread and a lot of time has to pass before I consider it. But I have one outstanding memory of this book (and I read it when it first came out) – the daughter that, as therapy, had to earn to crawl. I think it was for her sensory perception? Or motor skills? Anyway, that bit came to mind so often when my four kids were learning to crawl!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! As an adult, Adah (born with hemiplegia) has to crawl for a certain number of months to get out of her lifelong habit of limping. I wondered how believable that was, but knowing how deeply Kingsolver researches her novels, I’m sure she got an expert’s confirmation.

      Someday I’ll work out the ideal rereading interval! Definitely longer than five years, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think since reading this book I have heard of that kind of therapy – it came up when a couple of babies I knew went from sitting to walking without crawling and st the time there were concerns about developmental milestones! None of those babies had any issues growing up but I have always wondered.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Like you, I read this some time ago (I think I was at university, so at least ten years ago!). I wasn’t especially impressed by it then, as I found it quite a simplistic take on imperialism, and would have liked to hear from a greater variety of narrative voices. However, it might be worth a re-read as I also remember very little about it (strangely, the one specific detail that has stayed with me is Rachel’s (?) advice on surviving in a stampede – stick your elbows out and let the crowd lift you up! Luckily I haven’t had to use this advice yet…)

    Like

    1. It is so funny to hear the little details that have stuck in people’s minds over the years! (Like my random line about the father and sex.) Yes, it was advice Rachel read in a book on disaster training, and did indeed help her survive the stampede during the ant swarm.

      I guess it was the insularity of the family perspective that bothered you? It’s true that we always see the African characters as ‘them’, though Leah does integrate by marrying an African man and becomes invested in what happens politically. Maybe Kingsolver was afraid of accusations of cultural appropriation if she dared to write from a black person’s perspective; and of course she was drawing on her own history as a child of aid workers in Africa.

      (A random thing that came to mind as I was reading: Do you remember at the Unsheltered event she said she wrote the scene of Mobutu’s death two months before he died in real life?)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I do remember that! I know other authors have related similar weird occurrences.

        I understand the problems with her writing from an African perspective, but I felt like it would have enriched the story she was telling. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to hear from Nathan, but I worry that his narrative would just have descended into racist ranting, so maybe he was best left out.

        Like

    2. I did ask myself (and will ask my book club) whether it was fair to not give Nathan a voice, but I decided his story of white colonialism and paternalistic religion has already been told.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t recall any other book you’ve given 5 stars! I must read this one.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    1. I’ve given lots of books 5 stars! Two of this year’s other doorstoppers, for instance (East of Eden and Cutting for Stone), plus a couple other books that featured in reviews roundups. I wonder what you’ll make of this one. Keep in mind the picture of Christianity is not entirely positive. ________________________________

      Like

  7. That is a cracker of a first line. It’s a book I’ve not read, nor, I suspect, am I likely to having given my copy away. I’ll probably regret that some day, but am glad to have read your review, so if I find another copy in a charity shop, I might try it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the sort of book public libraries are likely to keep in stock, too.

      Like

  8. I have only recently discovered Kingsolver and have loved what I’ve read so far. Have not tried this one yet, though I gather it is her masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s my favourite of hers at this point, followed by Prodigal Summer and Unsheltered. I also love her nonfiction.

      Like

  9. I too read this 15 years ago, but I have always remembered it as one of my lifetime bests. I wonder if rereading would hold up?

    I remember the cake mixes and the coats they wore on the aeroplane with pockets and lots of useless foodstuffs and implements. And I remember not knowing in the morning what you would eat that day – not because you had to choose something from the cupboard but because you hadn’t found it, picked it or caught it yet. That has occurred to me a thousand or more times over the years when I look at my pantry.

    Oh – I’m sure it would hold up to a reread! I’ll try to set it up as my first book of the year, and look forward to that delight in January. Thanks for the nudge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to treat myself to rereads of a few of my “absolute favourites” during my birthday week this year. I love that you’re already planning ahead to January! I certainly found that the novel lived up to (exceeded, rather) my memory of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. We both enjoyed this one although it’s not my favourite of hers for the simple reason that I don’t like books set in Africa (South of the Sahara) – I do realise this is awful of me and I am the same about South America, while happily reading Northern African, Indian, Asian books. I think it’s the way bloody conflict often does come in, as it does here. But I steeled myself to read this at the time and did very much rate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t gravitate towards Africa- or India-set books and wouldn’t want to read loads of them, but the occasional one is fine.

      Like

      1. That makes me feel better!

        Like

  11. Great review! I have been meaning to read this book ages and I particularly enjoyed reading your insights into name-changing and the effect of Africa on the characters. I also love it when a book uses another significant book to provide imagery or language. For example, I loved how “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” did it with William Blake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I don’t know Blake’s work, so I probably missed lots of the allusions in Tokarczuk’s book, though I enjoyed it anyway: https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/three-recent-review-books-holmes-tokarczuk-whitaker/.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Another book that I read so long ago that I’ve forgotten all the details. I do remember my general impression of it, though. I loved it, but it also made really mad. Great first line! I think this would make a good reread!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got angry about the U.S. meddling in African affairs — I think I mostly overlooked that as ‘boring’ historical background on my first reading. I definitely recommend this as one to reread.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most […]

    Like

  14. […] always been an unusual loner with a rich inner life, speaking and writing backwards (like Adah in The Poisonwood Bible) and becoming obsessed with battle logistics. Now, as a professor of history at her alma mater, she […]

    Like

  15. […] The Nix by Nathan Hill We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami The Sparrow by Mary Doria […]

    Like

  16. […] She and her parents returned to the country after the 2010 earthquake: they were volunteers with a relief organization, while she reported for the This American Life radio program. I loved the ambivalent portrait of Haiti and, especially, of Jon, but couldn’t muster up much interest in secondary characters, hoped for more discussion of (loss of) faith, and thought the book about 80 pages too long. Irving writes wonderfully, though, especially when musing on Haiti’s pre-Columbian history; I’d gladly read a nature book about her life in Oregon, or a novel – in tone this reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible. […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: