Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Published: July 5, 2005 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Format: Digital e-book
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The Goodreads synopsis: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”

I’ve probably spent more time writing this review than I’ve ever done before, and one thought keeps crossing my mind: This is so hard.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books that I really struggled with. I read it, I enjoyed its plot, and I related to some of its characters…but after I finished reading it, it took me almost a week to settle on how I felt about it. There’s so much going on within these pages as the Price family jumps back and forth between Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. The four daughters have to adjust to primitive life on the other side of the world from the sheltered existence they’re used to while their mother, Orleanna, has to work 25/8 to manage her family’s day-to-day life and their father, Nathan, endlessly preaches the Word of God to the unbelieving Congolese. Goodreads’ description of the Prices as undergoing a “tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction” is an understatement, that’s for sure. I don’t want to give away any details, but their transformation as a group is very rough and difficult to read about. I came away not feeling even the slightest bit of envy for them and all they’d been through, in terms of religion, politics, and personal experiences. Let’s just say I’m happy I’m not a Price.

I’m not religious at all but many of my relatives are devout Catholics, and one in particular verges on fanatical. I think they would appreciate Nathan’s convictions much more than I did — at one point, I was tempted to start skipping over his scenes because I was starting to feel like my teenage self again. Like the Price girls, I was raised in a religious household and was supposed to abide by the teachings of the Bible; as I grew older I first started skipping Mass out of sheer laziness (because, sloth or not, what tween or teen wants to get out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to go to church?). Then I started to think for myself and realized that my values and ideals were not in line with those of my inherited faith, and I basically stopped attending services altogether. I still believe in a higher power, but my opinion of the Catholic Church, the Bible, and the values within them would probably earn me a ticket straight to Hell in many eyes. While I understood the basis for Nathan’s religious fanaticism (again, no spoilers!), it didn’t make me empathize with him at all. It’s not reason enough to attempt to force people to share your beliefs, and those very beliefs are not an excuse to treat your all-female family like complete wastes of space. Honestly, I was thrilled when he stopped talking!

You know the phrase, “There’s two sides to every story”? In The Poisonwood Bible, we get more than two sides — we get five, from Orleanna Price and each of her four daughters. It makes for a multidimensional story, especially when it comes to painting a picture of Nathan Price and of adjusting to African life. Each of the girls, with the exception of self-centered and obnoxious Rachel, reminded me of myself. Aside from Nathan, Rachel’s was the only perspective I really didn’t care for; her selfishness and attitude toward the Congolese were particular turn-offs. At the start of the book, Leah is seeking her father’s love and attention and God’s redemption, until a major tribe event completely changes her perspective and she carves out a new path for herself. I connected with Leah when she reaches her crossroads: I tied her Katniss Everdeen moment with my “miracle” pregnancy as the point where I began to see my life and its purpose very differently. Adah, Leah’s twin sister, often speaks in palindromes that sound like slam poetry, and she enjoys books, so my link to her should be obvious. Finally, little Ruth May is like the mayor of the Price family, the first to reach out to the Congolese children and the one who connects best with them. She reminded me very much of myself as a child, and I was so sad to experience tragedy with her.

My favorite sections of the novel were those describing life in the Congo, especially pertaining to the help the Prices find in village natives Nelson and Anatole. As a white female, I can’t personally speak to the black experience and especially not to living in the Congo. Maybe it’s that innocence (or cluelessness?) that deepened my interest, I don’t know. What I do know is that it was fascinating to read about the Belgian-American-Congolese politics through the eyes of the Prices and to experience one of the girls — I won’t say which one — immersing herself into the culture through marriage. The book as a whole was a scary, eye-opening experience and, while it might not be my favorite book ever, I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

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