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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

A book review by Maribeth Griffin,
Associate Director of Housing
Western Connecticut State University

I first got to know Barbara Kingsolver's work as a member of a book group discussing Pigs in Heaven. I've since read several of Kingsolver's other novels, the most recent being The Poisonwood Bible. Set far from the American Southwest of the earlier books I'd read, The Poisonwood Bible carries us, and the Price family, to heart of the Belgian Congo during that nation's quest for independence. It is a journey through lives overcome by guilt and searching for redemption.

Nathan Price is a World War II veteran, an evangelist who returned from the war a very different man than he entered it. Gripped firmly by the hand of God once again, Nathan uproots his family (a wife and 4 daughters) from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia and takes them to Kilanga, Congo in 1959. He is a despot - convinced that his purpose is to bring the Word of God (modern science, hygiene, proper farming, and anything else he thinks of) to the heathen Congolese. His devotion to God tolerates no deviation from his plan, and there is severe punishment for anyone whose acts, words or thoughts he believes do so. It is through the eyes of the women in the family that we hear the tale and take the journey into pain, tragedy, history and triumph.

Orleanna Price is Nathan's wife and the book's central narrator. Married to Nathan before the war changed him, her story is that of a woman frozen by social mores and fear and haunted by the consequences of her incapacity to act.

Eldest daughter Rachel is a teenager devastated by leaving the modern world and journeying to a place where, in the first day, her "brand-new tulip-tailored linen suit in Poison Green with square mother-of-pearl buttons was fixing to give up the goat [sic]." Yet, when time passes and she is offered the opportunity to leave the place where she lost so much, she finds herself trapped by the life she created for herself and unable to break the hold Africa has on her.

Leah and Adah are twins, perhaps the most perceptive members of the family. Although she knows and fears her father's temper, Leah struggles to win his approval and love ("I crave heaven and to be my father's favorite."). As time passes in Kilanga, however, Leah's beliefs in her father and in heaven succumb to her realization that the people of Congo are not the sub-humans she was led to believe. In fact, Leah sees the Western world's influence in Africa as the real evil, and eventually marries her Congolese teacher, joining him in Congo's independence struggle.

Adah, the other twin, is believed to have suffered from hemiplegia at birth, a result of Leah's fetus taking in more nourishment than hers. Assumed to be "slow" due to this condition, a limp from the underdevelopment of her limbs and her inability to speak, Adah instead keenly observes and comments on the world around her. She reads and writes, and, to the astonishment of her family, is eventually seen as gifted by her teachers. However, she remains mute. She turns words and the world upside down and backwards, insightfully and humorously forcing us to look at the world in very different ways. Her topsy turvy world view is prophetic when Adah's world turns upside down after the family's African tragedy.

Ruth May is the youngest. At five years of age, she looks innocently at life, filled with the 1950's white, Southern belief in the rightful place of Africans as members of the Tribes of Ham (Noah's youngest son) whose children were damned to be slaves "forever and ever. That's how come them to turn out dark." Her curiosity and naivety lead to narrow escapes from danger and to the turning point in the family's rapid descent into despair in Africa.

When tragedy consumes the Price family and the Kilanga village, Kingsolver spins us through the next few decades, weaving these stories into the cloth of the Congo, Africa, and the women's own family history. Their battles to fight their demons coincide with the Congo's battle for independence, and we are swept up in the saga of a land and a family, each fighting to control their own destinies.

Kingsolver is a delight to read. Perhaps due to part of her own childhood having been spent in Africa, there is a sensibility of the place that most of us don't know and never think about. She pulls us down into our easy chairs for a comfortable chat with her characters, only to jolt us out and throw us into their tempest. I enjoyed wiping the "dirt that was everywhere like red chalk dust" off my hands when I finally finished this book, because I'd made the journey,too.