February 2, 1999
by Mary Beth Culp
The Poisonwood Bible
Harper Flamingo, 1998.
Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel paints a powerful portrait of an American family against the backdrop of the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the involvement of the United States in the coup that installed his successor, and the rapid decline of the young nation's early hope and promise.
The story is told in alternating chapters by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelistic preacher who takes his family to the Congo in 1959. Through their eyes we see the father, a rigid, autocratic, unyielding, and self-righteous man determined to impose his beliefs on another people with no regard for their culture or the realities of their lives. His major goal is to baptize as many of the people of the village of Kilanga as possible in the river, and he cannot understand their outright hostility toward the idea. When he finds out that they fear the river because their children have been eaten by crocodiles, he considers baptism by sprinkling, but decides that God is testing him like Job, so he persists in his goal, ignoring the effects of his actions on the villagers and his own family. In the native language batiza, pronounced with the tongue curled just so, means "baptism." Otherwise, it means "to terrify." No one explains it to the Reverend because "he is not of a mind to receive certain news."
Although he lacks love and compassion, Price is no Elmer Gantry. He is a tortured soul whose own sense of unworthiness and failure make him incapable of empathy or love for anyone. His inability to adapt to the realities of the Congo eventually drive him mad, but not before he has irrevocably scarred his family and destroyed his mission.
Orleanna Price is kind and loving, but completely overshadowed by her husband and his wrath. She soon understands the futility of their situation. They are ill-prepared, both physically and emotionally, for life in the village and for the explosive political situation in the Congo. She realizes they have brought all the wrong things, including the Betty Crocker cake mixes which have hardened like salt in the climate. It takes the death of one of her children for her to leave, but she eventually finds her own path to salvation.
Rachel, the sixteen-year old, is self-centered, vain, and comically ignorant. Her malapropisms and her descriptions of her family and the villagers provide much of the dark comedy in the novel. She describes Anatole, the schoolteacher, who has a "mysterious air, like a putative from the law... My sisters gawked at the fascinating stranger and hung on his every syllabus of English, but as far as I was concerned it was just exactly like dinner with Father's prissy Bible study groups back in Georgia, only with more repulsive food."
Leah and Adah are the adolescent twins, who are gifted, each in her own way. Leah is a bright and willing apostle of her father. She does everything to please him and win his favor. Slowly, however, she sees him for what he is and becomes acclimated to the culture of the Congo, while she rails against the injustices done to the natives. She says that these new insights have "opened up in my heart a sickening world of doubts and possibilities, where before I had only faith in my father and love for the LORD. Without that rock of certainty underfoot, the Congo is a fearsome place to have to sink or swim."
Adah, too, is bright, but she is crippled from birth and is a watcher rather than a talker. She writes (both forward and backward) and makes nonsense rhymes. Her musings, perceptive and detached, provide another view of her father. She describes him thus: "'Tata Jesus is Bangala!' declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon. More and more, mistrusting his interpreters, he tries to speak in Kikongo. He throws back his head and shouts these words to the sky, while his lambs sit scratching themselves in wonder. Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. Praise the LORD, hallelujah, my friends! For Jesus will make you itch like nobody's business."
It is Ruth May, the five-year old, who is the first to be accepted by the villagers. She teaches the children to play "Mother, may I?" They follow her directions explicitly, without understanding what they mean. Her childhood innocence protects her in many ways, but makes her more vulnerable in others. She says, "Father is trying to teach everybody to love Jesus, but what with one thing and another around here, they don't. Some of them are scared of Jesus, and some aren't, but I don't think they love Him...I'm scared of Jesus, too."
When the family meets Reverend Fowles, the former minister at the mission who has "gone native," Orleanna and her daughters are taken with his easy manner, his loving relationship with the natives, and his benevolence. He is the opposite of Nathan in every way, and Nathan is horrified at his "loose" ways. Fowles sums up his theological views by quoting Romans, chapter ten. "If the first handful of dough is consecrated, the whole mass is, and if the root of a tree is consecrated, so are its branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you who were only a wild olive shoot have been grafted in, and made to share the richness of the olive's root, you must not look down upon the branches. Remember that you do not support the root; the root supports you." Fowles goes on to say, "Do you get the notion we are the branch that's grafted on here, sharing in the richness of these African roots?" But it is lost on Nathan.
In the author's note of The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver says that she was the "fortunate child" of medical and public-health workers, who taught me to pay attention, and set me early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right," she states. In this book, the author makes that terrain come painfully but beautifully alive.