The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Collins, 1998
[Challenge # 18 : A book taking place in Africa.]
I switched my African read from The Fate of Africa because I came upon this book in one of the local Little Free Libraries and started reading it while in line to drop off some junk at the Goodwill. The line was very long in these COVID times, and by the time, 40 minutes later, I was driving home, the author had me hooked.
This book has gotten a lot of praise — it was featured in Oprah’s Book Club — and there are even study guides devoted to it. It was a big deal when it first came out. Some aspects of the praise were warranted, but more than twenty years later, I don’t think the story has held up well. I can’t see it becoming a classic. It’s just too one-note and mean-spirited.
The Poisonwood Bible is about a fire-and-brimstone minister, Nathan Price, who uproots his family from the American South of 1959 and heads to the Belgian Congo, which is soon to become an independent country. His long-suffering wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters Rachel, Leah and Adah (twins) and Ruth May come with him. The story is about their culture shock as they live in a hut without electricity or running water as their father preaches salvation to the natives, who remain unimpressed. The narration alternates between the first-person voices of the female characters, sometimes jumping ahead to the future after they have left Africa, or to the past when they were younger. Kingsolver has said she intended the book to be a study of a family in crisis, but it comes across more as an exercise in snark.
Right away this very white-bread family is set up so readers can laugh at them in their ignorance. Everything they do, is a failure. Mom has a tear-filled breakdown when the boxed cake mixes she has smuggled in for birthdays get ruined in the Congan humidity; Dad’s garden he plants with American seeds is repeatedly flooded and then fails for lack of appropriate pollination. I enjoyed it up to the middle, then thought, enough. I wanted to see plot progression and feel some emotional weight. Everything felt too anecdotal, like any chapter of it could have appeared in The New Yorker magazine as a short story. It was too overwritten for a novel. The writing was enjoyable, mind you, but got to be too much.
The girls’ narration tired me as well. When the story begins, Rachel, the oldest, is 15 going on 16; the twins are 14, and Ruth May is 5. But they come across as too cerebral, even the youngest. They didn’t seem authentic. I think the author was trying for a William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury approach, crossed with some Holden Caulfield, but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
I gave up halfway in. In light of the current times and current issues of 2020, I was just not comfortable with the mocking tone of it. The Congolese are mocked through the eyes of the narrators, and the narrators, with their 1950s religious fundamentalist mindsets, are set up to the mocked by the readers, or by the author. This may be the fault of the time in which it was published, when it was standard to mock the 1950s through the more “enlightened” filter of the 90s (take the successful movie Pleasantville, for example… ) but the author wasn’t adding anything new to the mix, IMO.
I guess I wanted the characters and their problems handled with more respect, if that makes sense.