reviews

Resurrected book review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

This is also from 2013.

1.

Holy shit. I don’t know why I ever felt even slightly reluctant to read it. I haven’t been so impressed by a book since — well, The Lacuna — and also feel so strongly that this deserves every bit of hype about it, every appearance on a bestseller list, and to be counted as a work of literature for generations to come.

And that’s clear from the opening, Orleanna’s reflections on Africa and colonization and the effect it left on her personally.

I’m on disc 5 of 13, so really not that far into it, but I am just so blown away by everything about it. The level of detail! I’m convinced Kingsolver must have gone to the Congo, though I can hardly imagine how that was possible or when she did that. [NB: Turns out she lived there as a child with her parents, in the 1950s.] It’s just so authentic, both to the Congo and to the American mindset for the time (the book starts in 1959, just before the Mad Men era).

There are two aspects of this book that strike very personally for me: first, the perspective of women, how it’s only told through the female characters (and, needless to say, so well done too, especially the chapters told by the youngest of them, and Ada’s, the silent genius); two, the whole missionary, Southern Baptist, fundamentalist zeal world. Which I grew up in, though not this hardcore (for the most part). It’s familiar enough, anyway. Religious zeal is one of the things I hate most in the world, though after the scene when Nathan Price decides to keep his family indefinitely in the Congo which just threw off its white colonists, I have to re-evaluate his brand of crazy as not just the usual Southern Baptist fevered mind, but the psychopathic level of religious zeal.

And it’s not just that — this is a painfully accurate insight into how the family unit worked (not in every case, but how it could work, basically, what was considered socially acceptable) in mid-twentieth century America, and how bullshit it is for people today to reminisce about that era, and why the only ones who do tend to be white men. Because they acted as gods. They — especially in the Southern Baptist culture and its like — were allowed to hold their family under complete tyranny, abusing them in any way they pleased (physically, verbally, emotionally), and the family had zero recourse. They were taught this is right, that whatever he does is right and allowed, and it’s God’s will for them to bow their heads and accept it.

It’s right for him to break the one nice dish she has, solely because he knows she values it, and he’s teaching her a lesson about caring for material things.

Though this morning I got to Orleanna’s backstory chapter, and wow. I am impressed all over again by Barbara Kingsolver for giving believable depth and explanation for why Nathan Price is the way he is (and Orleanna too, her heartbreaking story). In short, he unwittingly escaped the Bataan Death March (the only one in his company who did), and came home with a fuckton of survivor’s guilt that got warped into extremely unhealthy religious zeal and lifelong guilt in general that he vented onto his family. He needed a fuckton of therapy and never got it.

And God, my heart breaks so much for Orleanna (and the woman who, when Nathan was away, would lock the doors and put on red lipstick before doing the household chores).

I also have to say that the technique of telling us up front that not all of the girls are going to make it was an excellent one, because it really adds to the suspense (and of course readers tend to assume that all the young virginal white girls will survive).  I’ve spent a lot of time measuring them up, wondering which one is going to kick the bucket and how.  Right now my money is on Leah, because she spends the most time planning for the future, and she has the most faith, especially blindly in her father.  But I wonder if Kingsolver will be that predictable.  Another twist would be to kill more than one of them off.

And now my fear is that the worst outcome would be Nathan dying first, so he can’t even suffer over the death of whichever of his daughter dies, and then the village sends the white women away, which would bring us to the opening image of them walking single-file through the forest…

2.

I finished The Poisonwood Bible a few days ago.  It’s hard to know what to say, because it’s just such an immense book that many others have reviewed much better than me.

I will say, though, that I was surprised and v. pleased by how the book didn’t end with the women’s escape from Africa — and that some of them never left at all.  So the one who died was the most predictable (and fitting) one of all; but I loved Leah’s transformation, the night of the driver ants, her crisis of faith and the revelation of her love for Anatole.  Theirs was such a sweet story; I’m so glad they escaped calamity, against all odds.

I really loved that second half of the book, where they all ended up (except Rachel, of course, who is a horrible person, but at least she too got what she wanted) — I was especially proud of Ada, how she went to the college and told them she needed to attend and continue into medical school — but I did have a really hard time with one part of the book, when Leah is near 30 and they’re terribly poor, and her sons regularly have hookworm, and I learned why malnourished children’s stomachs swell out, and she argues with the neighbor child about becoming a prostitute — well, that was hard for obvious reasons.  But I was really nauseated and devastated for a while after that part, with the inescapable awfulness of life for Congolese children — which is a reality, not a fiction — and I couldn’t understand why Leah, for the sake of her children, didn’t move them the fuck to America.  Hookworm, Christ.  But as we find out later, when they did visit America, of course 1960s/1970s southern America would not be kind to a multiracial family or young black boys (intelligent and multilingual) who had no reason to feel inferior. They would not have been safe there, either.  (Except maybe from hookworm.  And also malnourishment from a protein deficiency, and frankly I don’t think I would have made Leah’s choice, as a mother.)

Anyway: bottom line, this is a bestseller and (ought to be, if it isn’t already) a classic for very good reason.

Reasons I love feminism, by the way: I never once, growing up, had to consider “housewife” as one of my possible futures. Like, as a serious outcome that might negate a college education.  Honestly, this is the first time I had to take a hard look at everything being a housewife involves and realize how terribly it would suit me, how stifled I would feel in that role, with no other escape or purpose to my days.

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