The Poisonwood Bible

Last summer I read Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, and ever since then I have been dying to read another Kingsolver book. There is something about Barbara Kingsolver and the way she writes that makes summer the perfect time to read one of her books. She is always very in tune with nature and her surroundings in a way that can be appreciated outdoors in the summertime.

photoSo I chose The Poisonwood Bible as my next Kingsolver book. The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family, a family of missionaries who travels to the Belgian Congo in the 1960’s. The story, much like Prodigal Summer, is told from the view point of the mother and the four daughters. Each narrator has their own voice, personality, and opinion on what is happening around them which adds a complexity to the story that would not be there otherwise. The family is in the Congo when it gains its independence, and what they are in for will change their life forever.

There is no doubt that The Poisonwood Bible is a heavier and more serious read than The Prodigal Summer, but despite the serious subject matter Kingsolver still uses the same beautiful prose that she is known for. As I said in my previous Kingsolver review, she can see beauty in the most mundane events, and brings that beauty out in her writing with ease. The way she writes makes me feel like the rest of us must be missing what’s really going on around us.

Kingsolver herself spent part of her childhood in the Congo before it was renamed Zaire. She drew on this experience when writing the novel. For example, in an essay she explains that her day to day life wasn’t too exciting (did mulitplication tables and schoolwork etc.). The same is true of the story. The Prices are leading as calm a life as they can. Kingsolver does talk about the politics that are happening in the Congo at the time, but it all seems somewhat distant compared to the everyday life of the characters. This is much like Kingsolver’s experiences in Africa. In her essay she writes,

[I read] of how The Congo became independent for some fifty remarkable days and then lost itself – diamonds, cobault, soul, and all – to indentured servitude to foreign businesses, mostly in the United States. I read this…in a trance thinking: “I was there…I had no idea.” Few of us did, at the time…

And that is what Kingsolver has done. She has told this story to those of us who glob onto fiction rather than read foreign affair reports. She has painted the scenes from history in her book. I wouldn’t say that The Poisonwood Bible is a fast paced read, but the characters are each so unique and interesting that I kept reading to find out what happens to them and to see how they change.

It was very interesting to read this book from a Christian persecutive. Nathan Price, the father of the narrators, is a Baptist minister who is the one leading the family on their missions trip. In many ways he is the antagonist of the story, but Kingsolver does not use this book as an opportunity to bash religion. Instead, she focuses on the misunderstandings between culture, especially between Americans and foreign cultures, and used religion as a literary tool to show this misunderstanding. As Kingsolver constructed the novel she explains,

The story I’m entitled to tell, the one I needed to tell, was an American one – what we’ve carried into the world, what we believed, and what we might still learn

and,

It aroused ire in a few people who…presume that a Christian missionary character who behaves badly in a novel is…proof of the author’s anti-Christian sentiments.

Upon reading the book I did not find anti-Christian sentiments, but rather anti-American-superialism sentiments. Nathan is not the antagonist because he is trying to spread the Gospel, rather he is the antagonist because of his closed mindedness and failure to see the Congolese culture and lifestyle for what it is. It is not the message itself, but rather the way that Nathan delivers the message that makes him an antagonist.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books that could became a whole other story upon a second reading, and I would love to return to it at some point in the future to see what changes for me within the story then.

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2 thoughts on “The Poisonwood Bible

  1. Great discussion of the book. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer are two of my favorite novels. I’ve looking forward to finding the time to read Flight Behavior.

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