Friday, July 17, 2009

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible begins in 1959 when minister Nathan Price moves his family from suburban Georgia to the Belgian Congo (which we now know as Zaire) to serve as a missionary in the village of Kilanga, which can only be reached by plane or riverboat, since days of travel are required to reach any neighboring village by road. The family soon learns that everything they painstakingly packed to bring with them, including their ideas and prejudices, are utterly useless: Nathan Price is fond of exclaiming "Tata Jesus is bangala!" which is supposed to mean "Father Jesus is Precious!", however in his deliberate ignorance of pronunciation and nuance of the Kikongo language, actually means "Father Jesus is Poisonwood!" His ministry further alienates the local people when he insists that their children must be baptized in a river that is rife with crocodiles, or they will suffer hell. How will the Price children survive when their father has alienated the entire town, the only people who can help them learn how and what to eat?

The story of the Price family is told mostly by the children of the family- Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May (in order of age)- with introductions to each section narrated by the mother, Orleanna. Each narrator has her own unique voice: Orleanna is unobtrusive and bittersweet; Rachel is self-centered, terrified, and humorous; Leah is the moral voice who moves from a child unquestioning of God and her Father to a native African; Adah, who is hemiplegic, writes riddles that pierce the heart of the truth; and Ruth May, who states poignant facts in a way only little pitchers with big ears can. The Poisonwood Bible is an apt interpretation of the old adage that one must bend, or one will break. Some members of the Price family will be broken by Africa, and some will learn to bend to it, as they live through the revolution of the forming of the Republic of Congo, when it flings off the rule of Belgium.

I found The Poisonwood Bible a very enjoyable read. Kingsolver researched her subject well, and is able to write with such nuance that she is able to tell a story that is not only an amazing adventure, but is also philosophical and speaks to modern thought and prejudice regarding Africa. The reader can both enjoy a story and learn something both about themself and the world around them through this novel.

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