Some books you read and you just end up completely impressed by whoever wrote it. This is one of those books and Barbara Kingsolver has earned a lot of my respect as an author based on my first experience with her stuff. I picked up this book mainly at my friend Deanna’s suggestion since it’s one of her all time favorites and her taste in books doesn’t fail me. I’ve also been looking to expand the amount of female authors I read. Kingsolver’s a great writer to start with.
The Poisonwood Bible is historical fiction, and really good historical fiction at that. It follows the story of a Baptist missionary’s family in the Congo while it fights for its independence, falling into different hands of power. The story is told through the perspectives of the missionary’s wife and four daughters. Each of the daughters has a very distinct voice, and Kingsolver does an amazing job of switching character voices as each girl takes her turn narrating. Rachel is a little self-obsessed and shallow… but not so much that she doesn’t make a good character. Her shallowness speaks volumes. Leah is the strong one and the most outspoken. Adah was my favorite character to read from. She has a variety of handicaps and abilities, among which are muteness and a fondness for reading things backwards and forwards and seeing double meanings in everything. Double meanings play a huge role in the book. Ruth May is really young, really confident, and pretty adventurous. To be honest, reading the parts from the mother, Orleanna, kind of dragged, but she only makes an appearance at the start of each section.
You never hear from the father, the missionary. You do end up learning a good deal about him, though, and pretty much come to hate the guy. He’s a jerk.
The story follows the family from the day they arrive in the Congo to the girls’ adulthoods. Along the way they meet Congolese revolutionaries and experience their own traumas and falling aparts that eerily parallel what happens to the newly formed nation.
What immediately impressed me about this book is just the extensive amount of knowledge you need to write a piece of historical fiction like this. First, you need to know about the Congo- not just politically, but things like environment, climate, fauna, and topography. She works all of those into the narrative really well. Then there is that political stuff, and Kingsolver works in the biographies of Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko. Other countries’ histories are referenced as well. South Africa, Angola. All the countries involved in the Congolese struggle for independence- the U.S., Belgium, and Portugal. She also uses a good deal of the Kikongo language and other dialects. In addition to being a book about the Congo, it also features a missionary family from the South, so her knowledge of Southern U.S. culture pops up. What impressed me the most came in a scene where the stubborn missionary father was debating Scripture with another missionary. It showed that Kingsolver wasn’t just cheaply using the Bible for it’s value as a literary reference, but that she knew that context matters, and there is a need to go beyond face value. The Scriptural references are pretty heavy, though. Every section is titled after a book of the Bible, and verses pop up left and right.
This book isn’t a light read. For starters, there are so many themes that pop up everywhere it would be impossible for me to single one out as the main theme or central idea of the whole book. It would also be impossible for me to talk about all the themes.
One of the big ones that jumped out to me though, was guilt and forgiveness. There is a personal guilt among each of the daughters later on in the book about something that happened to them along the way. It also parallels the guilt that the U.S. definitely has in the role that it played in the Congo through the 1950s, including ordering the removal of Lumumba from power. Leah in particular experiences white guilt, never being able to shake all the reactions she’s given for her white skin long after acclimating to an African culture. Each of the girls finds their own way to deal with guilt, some healthier and some unhealthier. It’s been said that this is why Kingsolver wrote the book from five perspectives. There is no one way to deal with guilt. And of course when you deal with the message of the Gospel and something that happens towards the very end of the novel, forgiveness takes center stage.
Other themes that come into play include justice, especially the biased Western perspective of what justice is, or if we can ever fully realize justice. The idea is in a sense toyed with that if justice can’t be obtained, does it exist? It’s a very big theme, especially given the historical context. Double meanings are a huge thing too. You see this all throughout as different characters remark on how one word in Kikongo can have several different meanings based on inflection. Adah reads particularly well into double meanings, reading words backwards and forwards. All throughout, you see the double meanings different concepts have to the characters. The big kicker is Christianity. Leah is a character driven by seeking justice politically and socially, and her family relationships show her as the most capable of Love. She is, at the same time, undoubtedly scarred by her father’s abuse of the faith and his failure to live out the Gospel he preached.
I hardly gave anything away in this review, yet it still managed to be this length. That says a lot. You can take so much out of this book. It’s a thinking-book, that’s for sure. It’s meanings shouldn’t be easily interpreted. It’ll definitely provoke a lot of thought. Oh, and one other thing. The last chapter of this book is incredible. It is one of the best last chapters I have ever read.