A Quill Pen

The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

April 2005 book review (1 of 3)
by Collie Collier

This book relates the story of the Price family in the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before independence. Nathan, a fiercely patriarchal Baptist, is determined to bring the fundamentalist gospel to the "primitive" locals, and drags his wife and four young daughters along with him on this self-imposed mission. Needless to say, none of them are prepared for the immense, overwhelming, awe-inspiring reality of Africa. Salvation occurs, but in unexpected ways -- and only for some.

It's a fascinating story, and it's obvious Kingsolver made some effort to research both the village culture she presents and the historical incidents which follow. The book breaks rather neatly into two stories, actually: one of the doomed evangelical efforts of Nathan Price, and the toll they exact on his family; the other a series of vignettes -- snapshots, if you will -- of the history of the Congo as symbolically represented by the continuing lives of the Price girls.

The book is replete with symbolism -- swimming in it, in fact, to the extent that it becomes a bit heavy handed. The title is the most obvious example of white intolerance and indifference to native ways.

There's also the obscene parrot left by the previous (much beloved) missionary, flung free of its cage by the irate Nathan, who is irritated both by its profanity and its popularity with the locals. A domesticated bird, the parrot lingers fearfully in the outdoor lavatory, terrified of being eaten by jungle animals. It subsists on handouts and scraps left for it by the sympathetic children of the village, including his own daughters.

With the death of the parrot by local wildlife, the also-domesticated Price family unit is symbolically doomed. Their spiral downwards, into both real and metaphorical death, is further heralded by loss of their stipend and Nathan fierily insisting the family will stay in Africa regardless. This throws the family out into the metaphorical wilds, and their desperate condition is epitomized in one daughter's bemused thought, "If it's all up to them [men, as represented by her father] to decide our [women's] fate, shouldn't protection be part of the bargain?"

Handouts and scraps left for them by the sympathetic villagers are all that keeps them from starvation during a terrible drought. Not recognizing the pity and generosity of the villagers, nor the intricate balance of subsistence level barter, the family keeps accidentally antagonizing with their "profanity" those very village forces they should be appeasing, until a fateful death occurs -- the turning point both of the family's future, and the book itself.

Religiously speaking, Africa is presented as the eternal, uncaring, stern mother goddess, rebirthing the entire family in ways they'd obviously never anticipated. This quasi-mystical religious event is rather like a hero's quest, initiated by sacrifice of the innocent, and only some of the family succeed in passing these tests. The baptismal death-event heralds madness and flight, as well as rebirth and growth, in the various members of the Price family.

The fates of the four Price girls are also symbol possible futures for this world: one child is dead, killed before adulthood by innocent but fatal ignorance of the dangers of Africa. One dedicates herself to medicine and research, which is fruitful for those in Africa but a sterile branch for the Western world. The eldest, sterilized by Western sexual disease and self-exiled from her homeland, is materially wealthy but emotionally bankrupt, living high on the sweat and labor of ignored Africans. The last girl is the most progressive and fruitful branch, symbolizing a union of West and Africa via her children, struggling with her African husband to create prosperity for the people in a world seemingly dedicated to impersonal forces of destruction.

From an anthropological viewpoint, it was a pleasure to see the intricate checks and balances of the village's culture recognized, and for the mother to realize what she'd done -- or at least participated in. Her rambling, half-poetic, half-apologetic musings reveal her ongoing moral struggle -- was she as responsible for the murder of innocence as the cold-hearted white men who brought her? Is the servant and handmaid as guilty as the master for the abuse of slaves? Could her being a white Other make her as penitently cleansed as being the Other is for the black victims, or does her benefiting from their pain make her just as guilty, just as complicit in the rape of the land and its peoples?

As one reviewer noted, Kingsolver wears her politics on her sleeve. Making almost all the blacks sympathetic characters, but only a tiny few of the white females so -- and only one of the white males, seen in passing -- seemed a bit much for me. I don't have an issue with the interracial marriages, which seemed to disturb another reviewer, but I do think the symbolism passed from lovely metaphor to over-used-baseball bat a bit too often. On the other hand, if what Kingsolver writes concerning US-backed assassination and king-making in the Congo is true, I can't blame her -- it sounds pretty reprehensible.

Also, the writing was interesting and evocative, as Kingsolver deftly moved from one writing style to another to show the various points of view of the Price females. Occasionally it was a touch cutesy, but on the whole the stratagem worked, I think. As one of the daughters notes, while creating order from the constant yammer of chaotic life about her, "All the noise in my brain. I clamp it to the page so it will be still."

Order from Babel: the daughter's comment makes me wonder if this is the source both of Kingsolver's story, and her hope for the future. In the end, as with the book itself, the future of the world is still open. It is left up to us to determine which past occurrences we wish to continue promoting, and which we should learn from and never allow to happen again.

Reader Comments

11.29.04: Jim's thoughts

(and my replies)

If this is fiction -- I do not like its theme.
If it is true -- I like it even less.

The story itself is fiction, although some of the events related on the (inter)national stage did indeed happen. I consider it a cautionary tale, and interesting in its recognition both of anthropological complexity, and perhaps-inappropriate behavior by our government. Technically it was well written, also. For all I think she overdid the symbolism, I did like the story.

11.29.04: Jonathan's thoughts

(and my replies)

Regarding Western and specifically US actions in Africa, what you mentioned -- assassinations, kingmaking, and 'regime change,' and I use that phrase deliberately -- it still takes place today. While in times past it was interventions and sometimes outright conquest by national governments, in more recent years it is corporations. In my time in the Coast Guard, I would hear stories form inspectors who conducted inspections of offshore rigs in places such as the Ivory Coast.

These companies would hire mercenaries as security personnel, and these "security forces" would very often be used to 'influence' local politics. The ethical use of these forces is debatable; more often than not they would be used to restore order in a region beset by strife, but of course only when such strife affected the company operation. (I will stop short of saying that they are actually used to topple local regimes, since I cannot say one way or the other, not having done enough research into that subject.) And we are already familiar with De Beers and their continued traffic in "conflict" or "blood" diamonds.

The Western nations get involved in so many conflicts all over the world for various dubious reasons, it makes me a tad queasy to remember that people in Liberia were pleading for American help, and it was refused.

Missionaries were treated with varying degrees of acceptance depending on the particular region. Northern Africa had much remaining from the Umayyiad Caliphate and Ottoman Empire, (not to mention British occupation in the Middle East) and so was probably, at times, actively hostile to Christian missionaries. South Africa was strongly Dutch/Afrikaaner, with a strong Christian presence. It was in the interior -- for example, the Congo, called until really recently the Belgian Congo -- that missionaries would find a modicum of welcome.

Yup, that's where the story was set.

Polytheistic peoples would probably view the Christians as worshippers of just another god, or an aspect of one of their own -- the agrarian roots of the Christian god have long since been lost to antiquity. As to what might happen when the missionaries announced that theirs was the One True God... well, some villages converted, some smiled and shook their heads, and some turned actively hostile, to varying degrees of 'hostile.' Christian missionaries were likely not the only zealots in the world.

That actually was a fascinating part of the book, in fact -- was the white god as powerful as the native gods? If so, he should definitely be appeased with all the rest of the deities. That issue was a major socially destabilizing force in the village, too. As the younger villagers "learned" from the rude missionary's teachings: why respect the advice of your relatives or ancestors, if you don't need them to intercede on your behalf with the local deities?