When Victoria recommended that I read a book that her book group was reading I confess to being a little hesitant. You see the book is on Oprah’s suggested reading list. Of the few books that I’ve read from the Oprah list I wouldn’t recommend any of them. But the more I heard Victoria sing the praises of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver I decided to read it based on her glowing reviews and ignore Oprah all together. I’m very glad that I did.
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a mother and her four daughters who are carted off to the Belgian Congo in the early 60s by the fanatical patriarch of the family. The story has a very interesting perspective. Most books are written either in first or third person. Kingsolver used a combination. The story is told first person but the narrator rotates pretty evenly among the five women in story. I found this approach to be very engaging. You grew to understand the motives and feelings of each of the characters much better than had the story been told in third person or from just one of the perspectives. Even with characters that I didn’t really identify I somewhat felt that I could understand why they reacted the way they did because of the authors unique approach.
The different perspective also allows the story to explore several different themes concurrently. Only to touch on a few: the loss of faith in the face of tragedy, overcoming handicaps, poverty v. wealth, ethnocentrism, the appeal of communism in the third world, the role of women, etc. Each of these themes and more are covered in great detail.
The story jumped around a bunch in time. Multiple flashbacks and back histories made the story unfold not quite chronologically. You had to pay attention to keep up. In the hands of a lesser author the multiple flashbacks would have been very awkward. However, Kingsolver made the transitions beautifully and told the story with much more feeling than a truly linear timeline would have given.
She did not waste a sing word in this entire book. Every sentence, ever word and even the punctuation is clearly thought out and serves a role. Whether it is a metaphor to foreshadow future events, a misplaced idiom, or just a quick poem that leads you to better understand the mind of one of the characters, every mark in the book serves a purpose.
Her brilliant use of several different languages to tell the story also gives a richness and a depth to the people of the Congo. Much is made about the fact that several different meanings can be inferred by just slight differences in pronunciation of the Congolese words. These differences in meaning exaggerate the ultimate futility of the father’s quest to bring Jesus to the savages and also add a new determination to a handicapped child whose nickname has an insulting and also a noble interpretation.
The family is from Bethlehem, Georgia. Even that detail was not casually assigned. The metaphor of a going to Africa and bringing “Christ out of Bethlehem” was brilliant. I live about 20 miles from Bethlehem Georgia. The historical references to places and events in Georgia we appealing to me. Being personally familiar them it created an interesting juxtaposition with the much more foreign descriptions of Africa.
The book is historical fiction. None of the main characters actually existed. However the political events in Africa of the 60s are described perfectly. If only for the political history this book is well worth the read. But it is so much more than just a history book.
I’ve heard of people dismissing this book out of hand simply because some of the characters are sympathetic to Communism. To them I encourage to put your presuppositions aside as I did. Read the book. Yes there are some comments in the book that are sympathetic to Communism. Kingsolver brilliantly explains why the promises on Communism would appeal to a people without a penny in their pocket, and even look on pockets themselves as a luxury.
Each of the five women who tell this story turns out dramatically different. Some I identified with and others I didn’t but Kingsolver’s style helped me understand each one. I will not forget the lessons I’ve learned and the fundamental questions that this book has caused me to re-ask myself.
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