0038 | The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

If you enjoyed this book, you’re going to love the map.

REVIEW
I’ve not read a book with a more apt title for a while. This is a book about bitterness, pure and simple and what makes us that way. I could reflect on so much that this book raised but I’ll just settle for what fascinated me most about this book. I’ve got a feeling it won’t be what most people focus on anyway so that’ll make my review worth reading I hope!

For me, the most fascinating aspect was the all too true picture it paints of the poison Christianity can leave in our veins. Some of you who know that I am a Christian might be confused that I might make that statement. Allow me to explain.

Jesus taught clearly that you can strain out a gnat while you swallow a camel. He taught this to the Pharisees, a Judaic sect that believed that the path to God was paved by the keeping of the myriad rules of the Law. “Not so,” said Jesus, “You’ve missed the point and it has poisoned you.” This same poison infects Nathan Price, the misguided father of this ill-fated missionary family isolated in the Congo.

Nathan Price is nothing less than a modern day Pharisee. He has not the slightest ounce of love for anyone. Many will detest the character. I pitied him greatly because I realise how I might so easily have become him. I winced at the way Nathan reacts to his family because I could so easily see myself in him. It was very humbling. There but literally for the grace of God…

The rest of the family feed on his poison, and you can hardly blame them. From the mother down, each of them gets one of several wrong ends of the stick about what Christianity is all about. One by one, they become embittered against it, God, each other and themselves to a certain degree too. There are poignant moments when this poison bubbles close to the surface. Leah, for example, allows herself to trade her belief in God for a belief in Anatole because she hasn’t heard that God thinks her worth anything. Although her father makes her copy pointless reams of verses from the Bible, it’s clear from this that she’s never read it for herself.

There’s barely a single thread of hope in this book that was not tainted with fear. It is tragedy painted with the broadest strokes because it transcends merely the lives of the characters themselves. It is tragedy on a continental, even an eternal scale.

So what was the point they missed? The point is elaborated by Jesus in John chapter 5 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” Nathan Price stopped short. He worshipped the religion but not the founder of it. Each of his family rejected Christ because they believed that their father was representative of him. The lesson is clear: Christianity is death, Christ is life. As, Brother Fowles, a character I would have loved to see more of says “There’s Christians, and there are Christians.”

While this book is powerful, evocative and poetically written, it’s hardly a breakthrough, and I think it’s a tad overlong. Kingsolver steals Theroux’s “spearmint” for “experiment” from The Mosquito Coast and while I concede that’s a very minor point, there’s a bigger problem. Stylistically it’s a complete rip-off of Atwood’s Robber Bride published five years earlier. The point of view moves in a circle around every female character in succession. I found this disorientating at times as I did with Atwood. Not only that but up pops another character who loves playing wordgames and writing stuff backwards. These characters (authors?) seem to find their backward discoveries incredibly insightful. I find them enadnum.

So, if you like Atwood, you’ll really like this. And if you’re bitter and twisted, you’ll absolutely love it!

OPENING LINE
Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

QUOTES

[childhood] seemed to me, in fact, like something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front of grown-up life like a frill on a dress.

Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.

WORDS
placket | unequivocal | vermifuge

CULTURE
USA» pinking shears | Melmac | Dorothy Lamour | Sacajaweah | the Lennon sisters | Lawrence Welk | Potato Buds | L-7 | Chef Boy-ar-dee | Hester Prynne | PF Flyers | Big Girls Don’t Cry ~ The Four Seasons | Gullah | William Carlos Williams

GEOGRAPHY

If you’ve got Google Earth installed on your pc, you can actually see the locations mentioned in this book by downloading Arukiyomi’s Google Earth – Poisonwood Bible file.

CLOSING LINE
Walk forward into the light.

RATING:
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good> excellent > superb

  • Dewey July 5, 2007, 8:14 am

    I remember liking this book, but not as much as some of Kingsolver’s other novels. As you can imagine, most of what you discussed went right over my head, not having the background needed to understand it very well. What I liked was the character Adah. By this point, years after reading it, I barely remember the other characters, but she stuck with me for some reason.

    Reply
  • 3M July 7, 2007, 12:26 am

    I MUST read this sometime.

    I voted for Wild Swans. It’s great!

    Reply
  • Bellezza July 7, 2007, 3:45 am

    My favorite line in this book came near the beginning, when our heroine wrote something like this: “My father took the Bible, which carried hardly any weight at all.”

    Now, for me the Bible carries ALL the weight I need. But, in the context of the story to come, it certainly carried little weight for the tribes they went to missionary. It was a very thought-provoking line.

    This book was especially poignant as it mirrors my mother’s life.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi July 8, 2007, 10:57 am

    @ Bellezza – your mother’s life? Wow that’s definitely going to make it poignant. I didn’t mention it but there are huge similarities in parts of the book with my family’s experiences in western africa too. Sometimes, it made me cringe it was so similar.

    Reply
  • Bellezza July 10, 2007, 12:05 am

    My mother’s family wasn’t in western Africa (what an adventure that must have been!), but she was “pulled around” the prairies of Canada in the 30s and 40s. Her father was quite similar to the father in The Poisonwood Bible; sometime our best testimony is a quiet, faithful life supporting our families while encouraging others. At least in my opinion.

    Reply
  • booklogged August 11, 2007, 10:59 am

    I absolutely loved Poisonwood Bible and the numerous levels of symbolism. The more I read about it, the more I loved it. I agree with you about the ‘poison of Christianity’. I’m amazed at the horrible things done throughout history in the name of Christ. He who teaches love has been used so often for hate, lies, ignorance and war. I’m am a Christian, too. I liked how Kingsolver used the father to represent the U.S. in our dealings with what we perceive to be underpriveleged countries – always trying to fix things.

    One of the ideas that stuck with me over the years since reading this is the one about carrying what we think we will need, weighing ourselves down, encumbering ourselves only to discover that those ‘prized’ possessions, thoughts, ideologies are not what was really needed. I believe Christ can help us to know what is really necessary to carry.

    Besides the symbolism I liked the story told from the viewpoint of the 5 different women.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi August 11, 2007, 5:37 pm

    thanks booklogged. Interesting… you know your comment about encumbering ourselves reminds me when I arrived in India for the first time. I met a hippy on the plane. He had a bedroll on his lap. When we hit the ground we both got to the baggage claim together. He started to say goodbye. I asked him if he was going to wait for his luggage. Holding up his bedroll, he said, “In India, this is all you need.” After lugging my guitar, two rucksacks and a host of junk around India for six months, I realised he was absolutey right!

    If you like the changing viewpoints, you’ll like Robber Bride by Atwood. Have you read it?

    Reply
  • CoversGirl August 11, 2007, 10:23 pm

    I must have a bad memory, because I never noticed the similarity to The Robber Bride until you pointed it out. I read it just for the sound of the title, and while the theology went straight over my head I also found it to be apt – all that bitterness left a sour aftertaste.

    Reply

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