It’s been three or four days now since I finished reading this book. My thoughts are a little fuzzy and disorderly, but I’m thrilled about commenting on the theme and various facets of this novel. The Poisonwood Bible is so incredibly beautiful. It is written in the first person from the point of view of five members of a six-member family. In other words, this story is narrated by the women of the Price family.
The Prices come to the African Congo as missionaries. Nathan Price is a staunch Baptist, unyielding and unmoving in his determination to baptize as many of the ‘ black heathens’ as he can. However, it is the women of this family (the wife and daughters) who almost immediately begin to realise that if they were under the impression that they have come to ‘tame’ dark Africa, then they are in for a surprise. Africa begins to get under their skin. It is wild and unpredictable. And who better to know how to survive it than its natives? The white man might think that they have come to civilize these people, but only these people know that ‘civilization’ is bound to lead to their downfall.
It was really interesting to delve into the minds of these five women, understanding how Africa changes them. Each of them is so different; the effects equally so. Also, we see how each of them feel about their husband/father and his devotion to his ‘mission’. I believe I would like to deal with each character individually. So here goes.
WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead!
Hers is the voice of the mother – her doubts of herself as an undervalued wife, and her fears for daughters who have no idea how much she goes through for them. She blames herself for not being able to stand up to her tyrannical husband; for not being able to protect her daughters from his self-righteous wrath. However, Africa makes her a different woman. Not at once. But after her loss. I cannot say that I admired Orleanna, but I did sympathise with her mother’s heart. I felt like rejoicing when she was at last able to break free of the chains of a self-absorbed husband. But I couldn’t really feel happy for her. She did what she did for her children’s sake; and she carries her burden right up till the end of the novel.
Nathan PriceAs I’ve mentioned before, Rev Price is a self-righteous man. At no point was I able to feel anything positive about him. He is like a horse riding with blinkers, unable to look either to the right or to the left. He is absorbed in his own goodness – or so, it seems. As the story unfolds we realise that Nathan Price is carrying his own demons. They are the reason he insists on going to Africa as a missionary, and when things get sour in the Congo, he refuses to get out of the country and refuses the same for his wife and daughters. I find it a pity that with his desire to convert the natives he was unable to find solace and peace in the God he verbally tried to proclaim. I think, in the end, therein lies Nathan Price’s tragedy.
Leah is the second daughter and older one of twins. She is the tom-boy of the family, and as the story begins, we see how much she loves her farther and how much she longs for his approval. She shadows no matter where he goes and what he does, and she is his staunchest defender. Yet, we find, that Leah is the one, most among her family, who falls in love with Africa and its people. She yearns to become one of them. And she tries her best to blend in, to understand the culture and language of the place they are temporarily situated in. It is during the turning point in the story that she finally understands that her father isn’t what she thought he was. He is no hero. He is no true missionary, for he has not even tried to understand the people he is trying to change. Leah is a character I respected. I can’t say that I admired some of the choices she makes, but they are all made in earnest, and one must give her credit for sticking to her guns. The war in the Congo (that is current Zaire) is what shapes Leah and her own family during the decades that follow the year she first entered the Congo. Leah too, carries a burden – that of her crippled twin whom Leah feels completely responsible for.
Walk to Learn. I and Path. Long one is Congo.
Congo is one long path and I learn to walk.
That is the name of my story, forward and backward.
Adah is a really interesting character. Due to her deformity she has other strange but fascinating abilites. Both she and Leah are considered brilliant. But Adah is dark. She lives in the shadow of her twin, and as a consequence she develops strange ways of comprehending something – strange yet equally brilliant. She loves palindromes and her narrative is full of it – in words, sentences, thoughts and ideas. I love the way Kingsolver has created Adah and her voice. I’m also fascinated by the manner in which this distinct identity of Adah begins to blend in with her twin once she is able to heal her deformity, yest somehow still remain her own.
Ruth May Price
She is the baby of the family. Most beloved. Ruth May has the simple understanding of Christianity. Her belief is so strong and, naturally, child-like. She too, like her sister Leah, is drawn to the African people. She is the first one to make friends with the local children, teach them games, and play with them. And she identifies herself rather strangely, with the animals of the African jungle. Ruth May plays a very pivotal role in the changes of the rest of the family.
Rachel is oldest of the brood, and perhaps the one most like her father, and yet so unalike. Her narrative is chock-full of malapropisms, indicative her rather low IQ and the main direction of her interests. She is very vain and self-absorbed. Yet one cannot help but admire her in a rather morbid way. Of the four girls, she is the true survivor; she is very worldly-wise. She cashes in on all the help she can get, and makes her way out of darkest Africa into some semblance of light. She makes herself a solid living, not allowing her experiences in the Congo deeps to affect her in any way except as a memory never to be repeated.
The way I see Africa, you don’t have to like it but you sure have to admit it’s out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet! You just don’t let it influence your mind. If there’s ugly things going on out there, well, you put a good stout lock on your door and check it twice before you go to sleep. You focus on getting your one little place set up perfect, as I have done, and you’ll see. Other people’s worries do not necessarily have to drag you down. (p. 516)
“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. (p. 276)
It wasn’t until I reached this point that I finally understood, clearly, the title of this novel. The Poisonwood Bible – Nathan Price came to convert a nation. Instead, he understood nothing about them, nothing about their needs, nothing about what makes them tick, what makes them survive in a harsh land of extreme floods and extreme drought. He came with a notion so foreign to these people. He came with ‘western’ ideas (he could not believe that the Bible had come to this part of the world before it ever spread to the West), and tried to impose his ideas and beliefs onto these people. At the end, however, his preachings did no good for the people and only served to alienate himself from them, further.
I wish I might have quoted a great deal more from this novel. However, unfortunately, I made no note of the passages that caught my attention. I realise this is a rather scattered commentary. I am not very focused right now, but this novel has made a great impression!