The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) 5*

I really like Barbara Kingsolver’s name.

Also, she can write.

I usually wait until I am done with a book before reviewing it, but in this case there is a mystery, so perhaps the review is best before journey’s end.  A family with four daughters goes to the depths of the Congo as missionaries in the 1960s, and right off the bat the mother lets us know that not all of them return.  In the first hundred pages, we learn that one child is buried in Africa’s damp red soil.

So who will it be?  There is platinum blonde Rachel (the only mediocre mind in the family), the unequal twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May, a 5-year-old made of willpower.  Their firstborn is Rachel and secondborn is Leah — this family has gotten it all backwards.  Nobody has learned the language before showing up in the Congo.  The villagers welcome them with a feast of goat stew, to which the father responds by preaching fire and brimstone about exposed breasts.  The Congolese, who hold superstitions that cannot be countenanced, come out as compassionate and commonsensical compared to the fuckwittage of the Reverend.

The narrative round-robins amongst the five females of the family, but mostly it swings on a Leah-Adah axis.  Leah calls her father Our Father without irony; Adah calls him Our Father with irony.


Mother has figured out how to make bread “by hook or by crook,” she likes to say, but the stove doesn’t really have a proper oven.  In fact, it looks less like a stove than a machine hammered together out of some other machine.  Rachel says it was part of a locomotive train, but she is famous for making things up out of thin air and stating them in a high, knowing tone.

The stove wasn’t even the worst of our cake troubles.  In the powerful humidity the powdered mix got transfigured like Lot’s poor wife who looked back at Gomorrah and got turned to a pillar of salt.  On the morning of Rachel’s birthday I found Mother out in the kitchen house with her head in her hands, crying.  She picked up the box and banged it hard against the iron stove, just once, to show me.  It clanged like a hammer on a bell.  Her way of telling a parable is different from my father’s.

Adah, the brain-damaged genius who thinks forwards and backwards for fun:

“Holy Father, bless us and keep us in Thy sight,” the Reverend said.  Sight Thy blessed father holy.  And all of us with our closed eyes smelled the frangipangi blossoms in the big rectangles of open wall, flowers so sweet they conjure up sin or heaven, depending on which way you are headed.  The Reverend towered over the rickety altar, his fiery crew cut bristling like a woodpecker’s cockade.  When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge.  The “Amen enema,” as I call it.  My palindrome for the Reverend.


10 responses to “The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) 5*

  1. It’s finely crafted, is what it is. The heat, the oppression, the backwards astuteness, feels like Faulkner. Their family name, by the way, is Price. There is a price to be paid, and something precious to be gotten.

  2. I haven’t read this book, but I did read a rail against it one time. The main complaints were that B.K. is too “nice” and write about such obviously-defined moral issues that no one dares to write bad reviews about her books, that the women in this story are too smart from the outset and really don’t have any particularly new revelations over the course of the story, and that the Congolese are given no higher place in the story than African wildlife.
    It stuck w/ me b/c it was so harsh, but, again, never read the book, and it’s obviously quite popular.

    • Yeah, I remember you saying that in Morocco. But man, I tell you she can write. I just don’t understand how that guy sees those women as flat characters, and it kind of irks me still; you start with a pile of utterly dependent, subservient women, and end up with something rather not. The whole point is that they don’t need more intelligence, they only need spines; it’s not surprising to me that a male reviewer couldn’t even see the wife’s leash and collar, much less its absolution- just clear and simple, “they started out smart; what was the problem.” Not that they all become women-and-gender professors; that wouldn’t say much about the human condition. And speaking of which, the inhumanity, manipulation, and sticky condescension of the reverend (and the American population and western governments) is held in constant comparison to the non-delusional intelligence, practicality, and capability of the Congolese, and I’d say much more about the politics, involvement, and character complexity of the Congolese if it wouldn’t spoil the rest of the book. It gives such flesh to a skeletal list of facts about Congolese politics, it gives faces to the stats, it certainly sees from the other side of the same old historical paradigms. And it’s damned clever writing. The very fact that this guy observed that no one writes bad reviews about her just says to me, “hmmm, so I’ll get noticed if I do.” And what does that mean, “obviously-defined moral issues?” What the hell is that? I mean, that’s like saying Schindler’s List is drivel for preaching to the choir. The reviewer is just saying “I can’t call her wrong, but I don’t want to read about it, because women aren’t interesting.”

    • It’s not a nice book. There is some redemption to be had, but whoever thinks this is nice is not paying attention.
      I generally object to allegations of characters being too smart. I was that bright when I was 15. They clearly run strong intelligence genes in the Price family.
      The Congolese are human. It’s complicated. It’s worth reading.

    • It’s not all gender all the time. The domineering father is only one part of a complex family of 6 individualistic individuals adrift in African mud.
      KPL is absolutely right that the problem was never that the women weren’t smart enough. What they need is wisdom or courage or attentiveness or imagination or humility. Really how often do you meet people whose primary lack in life is intelligence?

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