A Mission in Uncharted Waters

The world is one vast field that is teeming with various activities. Under its canopies, different traditions, societies, and beliefs thrive with a harmony that is unfathomable. It is difficult to describe but it is there. However, despite this symbiosis, there are still those of us who tread the calm waters in the hopes of indoctrinating others with our own beliefs. they force themselves in and intrude, shoving down others’ throats their own sense of superiority. Barbara Kingsolver’s most renowned work, The Poisonwood Bible, plunges into the depths of Africa, its diverse culture and its hubbub.

Many literary pundits touted The Poisonwood Bible as one of Barbara Kingsolver’s best work. With her imaginative writing, she skillfully painted and sculpted the image of missionary life in Africa through the Price family. Nathan Price, the family’s patriarch, is a domineering Baptist preacher and was once a soldier. His wife, Orleanna, is his antithesis – timid, soft-spoken, and docile. Between them are four daughters – Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May – who has varying degrees of personalities, and voices.

Seeing it as his mission to spread catechism to the rest of the world, Nathan Price uprooted his family from suburban Georgia and flew them to a remote village, Kilanga, in the hinterlands of Belgian Congo on a one-year mission. What the Price family uncovers in Kilanga is a thriving community which has its own beliefs and schools of thoughts. How will the Prices survive a continent that is reeking with different diseases, snakes and unusual traditions?

“You can curse the dead or pray for them, but don’t expect them to do a thing for you. They’re far too interested in watching us, to see what in heaven’s name we will do next.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is a literary onion that has several layers to it. The first, and most palpable layer is the Price family. At its core, the novel is the portrait of a family, a dysfunctional one at that. The Prices gave the narrative life, with their alternating point-of-views. The four sisters, with their varying personalities and distinct voices, formed the backbone of the narrative. Through them, the author expounded on a plethora of complex subjects such as motherhood, parent child relationships, and forgiveness.

Leah’s observations, in particular, gave life to one of the several themes buried underneath the rich text – the gender roles and feminism, especially in African society. On one of her ruminations, she summarized the roles of women in African society. “The girls of Kilanga all being too busy hauling around firewood, water, or babies. It did cross my mind to wonder why Pascal had a freedom to play and roam that his sisters didn’t. While the little boys ran around pretending to shoot each other and fall dead in the road, it appeared that little girls were running the country.” Lest one forgets, the Price family is in itself a well of gender stereotyping.

Poverty and starvation is another underlying theme. “He did not seem disappointed to have to eat the whole brood himself,” Leah narrated, referring to her friend who ate pink-skinned birds. During a long bout with drought, the entire village commenced a village-wide hunt in order to stock food. This is one of the rich scenes in the novel; it was pulsating, and full of  suspense.

As the smell of burnt grass and animal carcasses started to settle, the reader is reminded of the vast circle of life – it is all about survival, either we eat or we are eaten. It is richly embodied in this quote, “The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep.” 

The intricate details of African society, its varied customs, its diverse people and its arid landscape came alive under Kingsolver’s crafty writing and Leah’s careful observations. Interwoven into the rich tapestry of the novel are several historical references. The finely textured references to the history of Congo complimented the story of the Prices.  Racism and colonialism were also richly depicted all throughout the story.

“A mother’s body remembers her babies – the folds of soft flesh, the softly furred scalp against her nose. Each child has its own entreaties to body and soul. It’s the last one though, that overtakes you.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

The novel is riddled with several allegories, with Nathan Price as the biggest symbolism. Despite lacking a solid voice in the narrative, he is the personification of western cultural imperialism. Close-minded, he was portrayed as an automaton which rejects everything except what he has read in the Bible. He sets out to convert heathens but had no inkling on how to it. His arrogance made him dismiss everything in his new environment, rejecting its culture as a form of paganism.

Kingsolver had an uncanny ability of drawing interesting characters. All four Price sisters have flaws that make them intriguing. Each one, also, has her own voice and distinct character that gave the narrative an entire palette of colors. They all possess some flaws of character that make them intriguing. Despite this, watching them grow as the narrative escalates is one thrilling and riveting experience. The four Price sisters reverberate with undertones from Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. They rekindle the spirit and fire that emanated from the classical quartet but in a distinct way.

The Poisonwood Bible’s narrative form was one of its more brilliant facets. Kingsolver’s writing repertoire was on display from the onset. With her captivating language, she was able to cast a spell. Her portrayal of over three decades in the collective lives of the Price family was vivid, imaginative, and, often, powerful. In the process, she conjured a tale that reverberates with the sounds of Africa, its people, its diverse colors, and its stormy political atmosphere.

Despite the alternative point-of-views, there was a harmony in how each perspective interacted with each other. The transitions were barely noticeable and nothing was amiss. One of Kingsolver’s  greater accomplishments is her examination and illustration of cross-cultural communication. She started the novel with a purely American perspective but as the story develops, the perspective slowly turns into an African perspective.

One cannot also discount how Kingsolver was pushing her own agenda through her work, giving it undertones of anti-missionary and anti-imperialism perspectives. It is also this agenda that, at times, gave the narrative a one-dimensional atmosphere. It can be noted as well on how Nathan Price was not given a voice of his own. He was defined mostly through the description of his daughters and his wife.

“My little beast, my eyes, my favorite stole egg. Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I’ve only found sorrow.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

In one of the scenes in the novel, Nathan Price was depicted shouting, “Tata Jesus is Bangala”, which is meant to express how Jesus is precious and dear. However, he is pronouncing “Bangala” like the poisonwood tree. This is one of the many memorable scenes in the narrative as it reeks of irony and the lack of clear communication between the Price patriarch and the community he is trying to convert.

The Poisonwood Bible is a rich text with powerful imagery and vivid depictions. Kingsolver was at her brilliant best, conjuring characters with contrasting personalities. Through her exquisite language, she managed to weave a tapestry that is brimming with color, objectively emphasizing both the dark and the bright corners. It is a truly outstanding read.

Ratings:

88%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%)
 – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

I never thought I would like The Poisonwood Bible as I wasn’t particularly keen on the first Kingsolver I’ve read. However, in this epic work, she convinced me with her powerful writing and impressive character development. It wasn’t airtight or perfect but it was memorable, it was masterful, it was the right mix of different elements – things that guarantee a magical reading journey.

Book Specs

Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher:
Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages: 506
Genre: Domestic Fiction, Historical Fiction

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. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy.

About the Author

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Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland but grew up Carlisle, Kentucky. When she was seven years-old, her father took the family to Leopoldville, Congo (present day Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, on a musical scholarship, studying classical piano. Later on, she changed her major to biology, graduating a Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Science in 1977. She earned her master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. It was at the University that Kingsolver began her literary career as a science writer. This led to a freelance feature writing with many of her works used as a cover story by the Tucson Weekly. After winning a short story contest in  a local Phoenix newspaper, Kingsolver’s career in fiction writing began.

In 1988, Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees was published. Two years later, she published Homeland and Other Stories, a short story collection; and Animal Dreams, her second novel. One of her more famous works, The Poisonwood Bible, was published in 1998. Her most recent novel, Unsheltered, was published in 2018. She has also published an anthology of her poems and a collection of her essays. She has also published a score of nonfiction works.

In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a literary prize which aims to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change. The administration of the award was taken over by PEN American Center in May 2011 and was renamed to PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Please also check her official website.