Steven L. Hopp
'Poisonwood Bible' marks a departure
By Patrick Sullivan
EVEN AS YE SOW, so shall ye reap. Or so claims the good book, but we'd better hope it's not true, because for hundreds of years Europe and America have sown a terrible seed in the soil of Africa. Slavery and colonialism, assassination and apartheid: With murderous intent or a careless hand, the nations of the West have let fall the seeds of sorrow from the Ivory Coast to the Cape of Good Hope. Africa has been reaping the whirlwind ever since.
It's squarely in the center of that grim harvest that Barbara Kingsolver sets her ambitious new novel, The Poisonwood Bible (HarperCollins; $26). The author of The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, who made her name writing stories set in the American Southwest, has focused this time on the landscape of the Congo.
This novel--her first in five years--marks a departure for Kingsolver in other ways too. Her previous works have been warmly intimate stories about fairly ordinary people. But The Poisonwood Bible assembles a huge cast of characters to tell an epic story of hubris and tragedy played out under the shadows of world history.
The year is 1959, and Baptist missionary Nathan Price has just shanghaied his family from Georgia to accompany him on a mission of faith to the Belgian Congo. Price is fiercely determined to bring the word of God to heathen Africa. Somewhat less enthusiastic about this globetrotting gospel spreading are the missionary's wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, who leave their home in reluctant compliance with their father's missionary zeal. ("I married a man who could never love me, probably," says Orleanna. "It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind.")
All six family members arrive in Africa only to discover that they are woefully unprepared for even the most ordinary challenges of their new home in the village of Kilanga. Every bedrock truth by which they live--from the power of evangelism to the correct way to plant crops--seems to turn to quicksand in this new land.
Moreover, the family's arrival coincides with a bitter, turbulent time in the history of the Congo. After decades of ruthless exploitation, Belgium is reluctantly preparing to concede independence to the colony in response to a campaign led by populist leader Patrice Lumumba.
That struggle seems almost tame, however, compared to the battles raging within the family itself. Crisis turns mother against daughter, sister against sister, and the tyrannical Herr Price against everyone.
The Poisonwood Bible's greatest strengths are the book's richly realized female characters and its creative use of language. Kingsolver has succeeded beautifully in the difficult task of narrating her story through the voices of five distinctly different women.
The twin sisters of the family stand at the story's center. Leah is an intellectual tomboy whose regard for her father is slowly crumbling under his misogynistic criticism and physical abuse. Her twin sister, Adah, has been disabled from birth, but her lame and asymmetrical body masks a powerful intelligence that is one part playful and two parts morbid. "I have a strong sympathy for Dr. Jekyll's dark desires and for Mr. Hyde's crooked body," she explains. Adah tells her own story with witty wordplay, packed with palindromes and ironic biblical quotes.
The book is less successful in its portrayal of the girls' father. Nathan Price is violent, sexist, and rather stupid. So afraid is he to be called a coward that he keeps his family in the Congo even as the country crumbles into chaos while the CIA conspires to replace the newly elected Lumumba with Mobutu's brutal dictatorship. Nathan's behavior leaves us wondering how he impressed his old congregation or attracted his wife in the first place. At times, he seems almost cartoonish in his unrelieved villainy.
Still, that minor flaw stands in sharp contrast to the novel's overall success. The vivid descriptions, the perfect pace of this epic story, the complex emotional relationships between the female characters: They all leave us hoping that Kingsolver writes on a continental scale more often.
Barbara Kingsolver will appear at a benefit reading and book signing on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building, 1351 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa. The event benefits Sonoma County Conservation Action. Admission is $10 in advance, $12 at the door, or free with purchase of the book. 823-8991.
From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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