Monday, July 2, 2012
E-Reading: Book Review of Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Type of book: Africa, 1959-1990s, Congo, Zaire, American female/African male, interracial relationship, bible, poisonwood, paralyze, reverend, nature, conversion, faith
Year it was published: 1998
As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?
In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortune across a span of more than 30 years.
There are many characters, but there are six primary ones; Nathan Price who is incredibly religious and dragged his family into Africa. He is very strict on his four daughters and is often physically abusive towards them. There is Orleanna Price, Nathan's wife who stayed with her husband and tried her best to live in a culture she knows nothing about; Rachel Price is the oldest daughter who is blond, selfish and very narrow-minded; Leah Price is open minded, early in novel worshiped her father as well as religion and is a bit of a genius; Adah, Leah's twin sister suffers from paralyzed right side and doesn't talk much and is opposite of Leah. She also blames Leah for everything. The last daughter is Ruth May who is curious and seems to be childishly racist. The characters are well written and fascinating, the minor ones as well as major ones.
I don't know about the latter half, but for the first half this novel shows why the European/American christianity will not work in Africa. I don't think the novel is anti-christian or anything of the kind, its just that christianity has to be tweaked and be somehow different to fit into the land of origin. It's also odd how far christianity or religion has spread far from the original roots, how it no longer fits the land where it came from so to speak.
The first four parts are well written as we literally live with the Price family from 1959 up until 1961. We watch the struggles the family endures, as well as hard lessons they learn such as when it was Rachel's birthday and the mother struggled to make Angel cake for her, or when father refuses to leave Africa and forces the family to stay against their wills and they have to struggle with necessities such as food and survival. I didn't understand the ending or why the author stretched the lives of the sisters up until 1990s. There are so many wonderful details as well as similes and lessons in the novel, but after the family separates it quickly loses steam and becomes a chore to plod through.
April 08, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, The United States
Literature & Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry
About this author
Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist, and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in Africa in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in Biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her most famous works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family's attempts to eat locally.
Her work often focuses on topics such as social justice, biodiversity, and the interaction between humans and their communities and environments. Each of her books published since 1993 have been on The New York Times Best Seller list. Kingsolver has received numerous awards, including the UK's Orange Prize for Fiction 2010, for The Lacuna and the National Humanities Medal. She has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize to support "literature of social change."
Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955 and grew up in Carlisle in rural Kentucky. When Kingsolver was seven years old, her father, a physician, took the family to the former Republic of Congo in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her parents worked in a public health capacity, and the family lived without electricity or running water.
After graduating from high school, Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana on a music scholarship, studying classical piano. Eventually, however, she changed her major to biology when she realized that "classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of [them:] get to play 'Blue Moon' in a hotel lobby." She was involved in activism on her campus, and took part in protests against the Vietnam war. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1977, and moved to France for a year before settling in Tucson, Arizona, where she would live for much of the next two decades. In 1980 she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona, where she earned a Master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Kingsolver began her full-time writing career in the mid 1980s as a science writer for the university, which eventually lead to some freelance feature writing. She began her career in fiction writing after winning a short story contest in a local Phoenix newspaper. In 1985 she married Joseph Hoffmann; their daughter Camille was born in 1987. She moved with her daughter to Tenerife in the Canary Islands for a year during the first Gulf war, mostly due to frustration over America's military involvement. After returning to the US in 1992, she separated from her husband.
In 1994, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University. She was also married to Steven Hopp, that year, and their daughter, Lily, was born in 1996. In 2004, Kingsolver moved with her family to a farm in Washington County, Virginia, where they currently reside. In 2008, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Duke University, where she delivered a commencement address entitled "How to be Hopeful".
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Kingsolver says, "I never wanted to be famous, and still don't, [...:] the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most." She says created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, "as a defence to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don't define yourself, it will get done for you in colourful ways."
I have to admit that if I were to rate it from beginning to end, it would go from five stars to two stars and then near the ending it would be zero stars. I wonder what should I have learned from their later lives, and why the parts from Exodus to Song of Three Children and then The Eyes in the Trees. I did admit that I loved the first few parts, from Genesis to beginning of Exodus. If it weren't for ending, I would easily admit that this is a five star novel because of the characters, the plot, language, explanations, and so forth. While the lives that the sisters led after the ant tragedy are fascinating, they barely provide psychology or understanding for the characters, such as Adah in particular. I enjoyed Leah's and Rachel's sections and kind of wish that the years didn't skip around so much so I could understand the characters more. All in all a worthwhile read coming from a very fascinating piece of the earth during 1959 up until late 1990s. For one reason or another, I can't help but remember the movie Virgin Suicides when I read this novel.
4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)