The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible (1998) which must be well known, my copy has ‘International Best Seller’ on the cover and elsewhere I see ‘Oprah Book Club’, has been sitting on my bedside cupboard for months, years even, but who gave it to me I do not remember. However, seeing it there every morning (every morning that I’m home, which is about half) at least prompted me to pick up the audio version when I saw it in the library.

The story is of a Southern Baptist preacher, Nathan Price, who takes his wife and four daughters to Kilanga, a village deep in the Congo jungle in 1959. No, that’s not quite right, the story is of the daughters, how they survive their father, how they survive the Congo, how the Congo becomes a part of them. Each section is introduced by Orleanna, the mother, back in Georgia in the present day, and then we hear, not in any order, the voices of the daughters – Rachel (15 in 1959), Leah (14), Adah (14) and Ruth May (5).

The girls all have slightly different voices, which made the book very easy to follow. Rachel is a Mrs Malaprop and Adah expresses her intelligence by thinking her sentences both forwards and backwards (it gets tedious after a while). Leah’s is the voice we hear most often. The author succeeds in making Ruth May sound young:

Mama needs her some Quick Energy. After Father went away with Leah in the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up…

I told Rachel and Adah we needed some 7Up for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: ‘Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? 7Up is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.’

We learn quite early from Orleanna that one of her daughters will die, so this is one source of tension during the first half of the book. The other source is family dynamics as the dysfunctional Nathan attempts to bring christianity to the ‘natives’ without any understanding of them at all, while Leah, Adah, Ruth May and to some extent Orleanna, become increasingly involved in community life. Rachel amusingly remains a southern belle, even in their early hand to mouth existence in Kilanga with all the dresses brought from Georgia turning to rags.

Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) is a good woman, anti-war, pro-environment, an advocate of living close to nature (Wiki), and she has produced here a portrait of a man completely out of his depth, surviving only by the kindness of the locals, of which all the Prices are blithely unaware, and the desperate attempts of his wife and daughters to support him while living within the constraints of traditional village life.

Over the three or so years of producing this blog I have become increasingly interested in how literature reflects – and no doubt influences – black white relations. How books by white liberals, of which this is one, so often put modern white liberal protagonists into historical situations to yes, accept blame, but also to suggest how things might have been done better; and how the books of Indigenous Lit. and, in the US, African-American Lit., increasingly paint a completely different picture.

The Belgian Congo was a colony ruthlessly exploited by US and European businesses with the support of the Belgian government. In it’s early years as a colony, at the end of the C19th the Congo, 75 times larger than Belgium, was the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II: “along with the uncounted thousands who died of disease and famine, many Congolese were killed by Leopold’s agents for failing to meet production quotas for ivory and rubber, the territory’s principal sources of wealth before its diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Mr. Hochschild estimates the total death toll during the Leopold period [1885-1908] at 10 million.”*

By 1959 this was supposedly coming to an end, with the Belgians agreeing to withdraw, and in 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo. However within a few months the US, which has always preferred right wing dictatorships to protect its commercial interests, engineered a coup. Lumumba was deposed by the head of the army, Joseph Mobutu, imprisoned, beaten and shot. The CIA’s instigation of the coup was confirmed by US Congressional hearings in 1975 (the Church Committee) – which Kingsolver refers to. Mobutu’s increasingly despotic rule lasted until 1997.

The second half of the book, which I didn’t find as interesting as the first, deals with the girls as they become adults and live separate lives, in the US, in the Congo/Zaire and towards the end, in neighbouring Angola, itself fighting to stay independent with the support of Cuba in the face of US/South African sponsored rebels. We also follow Anatole Ngemba who, when the Prices arrive, is the village school teacher, and later a political activist in the anti-Mobutu movement.

A lot of the book, most of it even, concerns the day to day problems of subsistence living in a small and remote village, in which the Prices must take part, having only a small stipend as missionaries and that gone with the flight of most whites at Independence; and of the confusion arising from Nathan’s inability to master even the rudiments of the local language. Kingsolver spent a few months in the Congo as a child but is otherwise constructing her story from research. The scenes sound authentic but we have no way of knowing how close they are to reality.

Where she succeeds is in telling a story which is both interesting in itself and which acts seamlessly as a vehicle for her political purpose – to excoriate her government for the ongoing harm it has caused the people of the Congo.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Faber & Faber, London, 1998. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 1998, read by Dean Robertson

see also:

*Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, cited in NY Times, 21 Sept. 2002 (here)

CIA report: CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968 (here)