Customer Reviews: The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel
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on August 10, 2000
I read Kingsolver's earlier "Pigs in Heaven" and "Bean Trees." I picked up "The Poisonwood Bible" on impluse to read while on vacation. Once I started reading it, I found it hard to put down.
I have never had much interest in African history, but this book made me want to find out more. Her characters, as in her earlier books, are very well realized and fascinating. The story begins with the arrival in the Belgian Congo of Nathan Price, fire and brimstone Baptist preacher, and his reluctant family. The family's story is told by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and their five daughters - shallow teen-age Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and five-year-old Ruth May. The voices of the characters are authentic and believable.
Other reviewers are correct in their assessment that this is, in a sense, two books. The first is about Nathan's clumsy and ill-advised attempts to fit Africa to his fundamentalist beliefs, and the family's attempts to fit their lives to Africa. The second is about the way a family tragedy marks its survivors and the different ways events in Africa mark them as well. I don't agree that Kingsolver should have "stopped writing" at the end of the first part.
I was absolutely spellbound by the way the voices changed and the way they stayed the same from the first to the last of the book. One believes in the characters, they change and grow as the book progresses. Other reviewers found Rachel grating, but I think that was the point. Her shallowness brought home the points that Kingsolver was making even more effectively than the earnest preaching by Leah. I got the sense that in her own way, Rachel understood the events perfectly well, but that she did not care.
I felt very complete when I finished the book. It was a satisfying experience.
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on July 8, 2000
At the time of this writing, there are 488 customer reviews posted. It seems you either love this book or hate it. I loved this book.
It is the story of a family that goes to the Belgian Congo to perform Christian missionary work in the 1950's. It is told in the first person by the wife of the minister, and his daugthers. Its point of view would of course be feminine, but not necessarily feminist.
While some reviewers seem personally offended at the author's treatment of the father, Nathan, I find him sympathetic. And, without him, there is no story. Nathan's soul is tortured. Through a quirck of fate, he misses a battle of WWII where his entire unit is lost. He never deals with it and he is changed forever. When he met his wife at a Christian revival meeting, he was kind and committed to Chirst. When he returns home from the service, we find that he has become a rigid, self righteous bible thumping preacher. He despises wife for his own perceived sin... he physically desires her. He barely tolerates his daugthers, as he takes the entire family to the Belgian Congo to pursue what he believes is his calling from God. The hierarchy of his own church does not think that he is suited for missionary work, and will not send him, but he manages to go anyway. The family is ill prepared for the Congo and this predictably has tragic consequences.
Once in the Congo Nathan antagonizes the few western missionaries he has contact with. And, in the end he fails in his effort to save the souls of the natives. There is racism in the 1950's attitudes toward the villagers... their souls need to be saved, but their lives are relatively unimportant. They can pray together, but not eat at the same table. When independence come, the other western missionaries flee, fearing for their lives. But Nathan stays and he will not allow his family to leave with the others.
There is the mother, who is trying to please her husband, to be a good minister's wife, and to be good mother to her four daugthers. She cannot do it all. There are the 4 girls, one a teenager who hates being uprooted from her friends, twins (one with a deformity), and a pre schooler. Their experience in the Congo changes forever who they are, and they do not all return.
The constancy is found in the lives of the African villagers who have suffered much worse, than these missionaries. There is the expected culture clash between the chief, the shaman, and Nathan.
Every great novel has characters who grow and change. Nathan's change took place in the Pacific in WWII. He does not change again and grow beyond that point. While he expects the Africans to change into Christians, they are constant in their own culture. That leaves it to the women of the Poisonwood Bible to change and grow. And, they do not disappoint us. Like other readers, I found the first 100 or so pages slow going. I almost put it down. But I am so glad I persisted. I highly recommend the Poisonwood Bible, and hope that there is enough that is unique in the above to justify posting a 489th review.
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on July 14, 2000
Barbara Kingsolver is finally receiving the attention she deserves for her impressive novel The Poisonwood Bible. I read this book last year because I'd just returned from spending five weeks in East Africa and missed the people and the country.
This novel tells the engrossing story of quirky, feverish Baptist preacher Nathan Price who hauls his family off on a mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The story's narration is shared by his wife Orleanna and their four daughters, ages 5 - 15, who seem much too tender and naive to survive the trials of harsh conditions, poor housing, language barriers, cultural clashes, and natural antagonists. What results is an absorbing story set against the backdrop of political and religious upheaval.
Kingsolver's writing in this book proves what can happen when a writer continues to pursue her craft. The work is impressively mature compared to earlier cute novels like The Bean Trees and shows her flare and passion and growth as a writer. The narrative voices are distinct and engaging except for 15 year old Rachel's whose heartsickness for American pop culture is somewhat irritating because of the stretches the writer makes to show Rachel's shallow nature. For example, at first Rachel's malaprops are entertaining, but read against the seriousness of several occurences, the writing sounds forced. Nevertheless, Kingsolver's narrators are living voices most readers will very much enjoy.
I loved this book in spite of its flaws--the characterization of Rachel, the plausibility of some of the Congolese people's actions, and Kingsolver's political analysis/overview. The last fifth of the book is laborious as the writer strives to incorporate Congolese political history, and such writing is not where Kingsolver's strengths are. She is a craftsperson, a creative writer--one who loves the poetics and muscle of English--not a political analyst. Readers should begin this book knowing this because the heart of it is wrought with passion, Biblical double entendres, and enjoyable characters in a fantastic and important setting. Kingsolver's ambitious research has produced an important novel with more strengths than weaknesses as she's given deserved focus to precious central Africa--as the world should have and should be doing now.
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on February 3, 2000
As others have said, this is really a book of two parts. The first half details the family's struggle as Congo missionaries. This is an engrossing and tragic story of an enormous clash of Western and African cultures told in multiple voices. I could not put the book down as I felt the useless pain being inflicted on so many people. While the literary devices Kingslover uses to separate the daughters' voices do get a little irritating at times, the perspectives are genuinely separate and add much richness to the story.
The second half of the novel, which follows the three surviving daughters for the next 30 years, is more problematic. While the account of Anton and Leah's interracial and cultural marriage is deeply moving, Leah does not seem to care that she is sacrificing her children's health to her and her husband's obsession with Africa--just as her father did to her. In addition, while I am generally on Africa's side, Leah's views change from refreshing to outrageous as the novel progresses. For example, Leah judges those Africans who enslaved others by local 15th century morals while she judges the western enslavers by modern standards. Also, in Leah's numerous speeches, the U.S. takes 100% of the blame hits for the Cold War meddling that tragically hurt Africa; even with my very limited knowledge of African history, I know that the USSR killed plenty of Africans and had a horrible effect on many African economies. Since Kingslover has Leah, a very sympathetic character, utter some extreme distortions without any challenge, I have to strongly doubt other historical and cultural facts she presents--rightly so according to some critics. Rachel, who a better novelist could have used to provide some thought provoking challenges to Leah's views, becomes an irritating mouthpiece for white supremacy and lacks any redeeming qualities. By the end of the novel, I had had more than enough of both Leah and Rachael! Since Kingslover has no realistic vision for positive change in Africa (Adah's thoughts about going back to subsistence agriculture are ridiculous given the huge population Africa now has to support), the second half of the novel basically is a highly biased political tract that has only one redeeming factor--the moving intercultural family story.
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on February 13, 2000
The first thing most any Kingsolver fan (as I am) usually says about the Poisonwood Bible is "It's different from the others." But don't dismiss it for that, or you will be losing out on a profound read.. Kingsolver's other books had a unifiedness: they pretty much revolved around the Southwest, were often about single moms, and were in the comfy 300-ish page range. In contrast, Poisonwood Bible is set in Africa, and is of epic length and scope. A rich, textured, challenging book, the story is about a heavy-handed Baptist missionary who takes his wife and family of four girls to be missionaries in the Belgion Congo in 1960, the period of the Congo's unanticipated independence. In her author's foreword, Kingsolver tells us that she too was taken to the Congo as a child, although her parents were health providers, not missionaries, and "different in every way" from the Poisonwood parents. Like a movie camera slowly circling its actors, Poisonwood's point of view is passed off from one narrator to another, a technique going back to William Faulker's Sound and the Fury (and perhaps elsewhere), and which I've been noticing has been in vogue lately. Sometimes we're seeing from the first person eyes of the spunky youngest girl; sometimes the poetic obstruse and otherworldly handicapped twin; sometimes the Ugly American oldest girl, her voice simultaneously appalling and engaging. Parts hypnotic, parts historical, parts beautifully psychological. By the end of the 543-page tome, I really felt as though I'd climbed inside the psyche of this family. And perhaps most importantly, I definitely feel I've a better sense of and sympathy for Africa than I did before. This book has taken several very American vantage points into Africa, and as the young protagonists grow and learn about this country and culture so hidden and misperceived by *this* country and culture, so too do we readers. I definitely recommended this mesmerizing novel.
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on November 5, 1999
I spent 8 years('62-'70)on a mission station in Zimbabwe and this book brought back memories of Africa. Barbara Kingsolver has captured Africa, the cultural clashes and the Americans who try to bring America with them. One reader complained that there was "very little contact" between the Africans and the Americans; the whites and blacks lived very different lives there, even on a mission station. I lived in Africa for 8 years and never learned the local language. I played mostly with other missionary kids, not the African children. My brother, who was younger (like Ruth Ann) interacted best with the local children. Another complaint I read was this: where was Nathan while his family starved? Africa is full of remote villages and many missionaries spent a lot of time away from their families travelling to these villages. Things happened while they were gone. Most of the criticism I read about this novel seems to be by Americans making assumptions about life in Africa and complaining because this book didn't live up to what they expected. I've been there and this book describes it all: the land, the people (Americans, Africans and "Europeans" or white Africans),the cultural misunderstandings and the political turmoil perfectly. I knew all the characters in this book. They were my family, my friends, my neighbors. As for the complaints about a political slant, she writes as it was: Communism and Socialism sound different in a country where very few (white people) have it all and very many (black people) have nothing, and democracy is hollow when democratic countries back the enemy.
A must-read for anyone who has lived in Africa.
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on April 19, 2001
As a 60-year-old, upper middle-class African-American woman, I lament the fact that I know precious little about Africa. After reading this book, I feel as if I know more, at least about one section of that continent. Kingsolver, with her ingenious biblical format, manages to help this American - who has always been pretty much self-absorbed and was certainly, as a young college music major, oblivious to the Congolese fight for independence - understand that the way we westerners, Americans in particular, think things should be done, and what we think should be believed might just be open to question.
The sisters' account of their life in the Congo is chilling. But I do have to wonder how Kingsolver expects the reader to believe that two people as different at Leah and Rachel could be from the same planet, much less the same family. Rachel seems more like a caricature than a real person. But we have her to thank for what little humor is contained in a story that is, in many ways, one of unremitting sadness.
I am not politically savvy enough to judge the correctness of Ms. Kingsolver's political conclusions, but they seem plausible in terms of what I know about capitalism, racism, imperialism and self-aggrandizement.
Would I recommend the book? Yes, with certain reservations. It's a long read. As I neared the end I found myself thinking, "Enough, already!" But I'm glad I stuck it out. The last chapter is worth the trip. I would recommend it to females, especially, and to other African-Americans like me who, in the manner of most Americans of any ethnic background, would prefer not to trouble ourselves with thoughts of the struggling, mysterious "dark" continent.
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on December 13, 2000
I have read the posted bad reviews (or as many as there were through the 220th review) and they did not convince me that this is a book not worth reading. This is a book to be cherished and discussed because it is a work of literature.
I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Kingsolver on her book tour promoting "Prodigal Summer". Most of the questions from the audience were about Poisonwood, and Kingsolver expained her writing style. She starts with a theme, then comes up with a question that the story must address. After that she decides what voices are needed to explore and resolve the theme and the question. This book started out with four narrators, but she realized that four points of view were not enough, so one character split into two, the twins Adah and Leah. The theme of this book is redemption, and the question posed is how can we redeem ourselves after we have made mistakes. All kinds of mistakes are made in this book by all of the main characters, and they are all seeking redemption, whether they know it or not. Some do not find it, some stop looking, others do find it. It is an epic journey spanning 30 years, and a story to be savored by her readers.
There are a couple of posted reviews saying she needed to research this book more. She researched this book for 20 years! She had file cabinets full of information that she collected over the years; so much so that she referred to this book as 'The Damn Africa Book'. She told a story of standing for hours in a zoo waiting for a green mamba snake to open its mouth so she could put it in this book. She wrote every scene in this book from all five narrators' perspectives so that we could distinguish their voices without seeing the name at the beginning of the chapter. It is her magnum opus, and readers who do not understand it are not serious readers of literature; they just don't get it.
This is a book to be read, and re-read, and discussed, and studied, by readers of serious fiction. It is not a light-hearted read, and it is not for everyone. But for those of us who get it, we are in awe.
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HALL OF FAMEon February 5, 1999
I first discovered Barbara Kingsolver several years ago and loved her novels, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven. Even though she, herself, is not Native American, her books stand as were beacons of enlightenment about their often misunderstood world today and have been praised throughout the world. The Poisonwood Bible is a more ambitious book, and the landscape is the Belgian Congo, but her voice lays bare the same kind of clashes and misunderstandings that exist between cultures.
Well researched and deeply moving, it tells the story of a missionary's family from Georgia who move to the Congo in the late 1950s. The father is a religious fanatic, driven to convert the world to his brand of Christianity .His wife and four daughters have no choice but to respect his wishes. Using the technique of alternating first-person voices, each chapter is told from the point of view of these five female family members.
A poisonwood tree grows by their house. It is beautiful but it causes rashes and boils on the skin. It's a great metaphor.
There is the mother, Orleanna Price, who struggles daily with the effort of keeping her family together in a world that is suddenly devoid of electricity, plumbing and food. Precious wood must be found for the stove, water must be boiled to remove parasites, and vegetables do not grow. The oldest daughter, Rachel is 16. She misses her friends and her life in Georgia and yearns for nailpolish and hairdos. Then there are twins of 14: Leah and Adah. Both are smart and open to learn about the world around them but Adah cannot speak or move one side of her body. The littlest one, Ruth May, at age 5 teaches the native children to play games.
Each one of these voices is totally distinct from each other and tells her tale in her own distinctive way. Their overlapping views of the same incident turned them into multifaceted prisms instead of simple story lines. I wanted nothing more to go on reading, finding myself in their world, feeling the heat and the beauty of Africa as each one, in her own way, discovered her own Africa.
But Africa was changing even as they were . Revolution was happening. It was dangerous for the missionaries. The father refused to leave. And the family gets caught up in total upheaval. When one of the daughters dies and I felt the grief throughout my bones. It wasn't just happening to a person in a book. I had known her so well that I, too, mourned the loss and felt their struggle to leave the madness. Felt the raging fever of malaria, saw how each had changed.
The last third of the book follows the surviving women through the next 30 years of African and American history. It is a political statement and it opened a world for me I never even knew existed. Often in books that span 40 years, the first part of the book is the best. But this book even got better as it moved along. It's 543 pages long and I was sorry to see it end.
This is a truly important book. It sent me to the internet immediately to learn more. I've lived my comfortable life here in the United States all these years and never had any understanding about what Africa was like. In this one book, Ms. Kingsolver brings me there. She does it with her art. She is more than just telling a story. She is opening people's eyes. Hooray for her!
I give this book my very highest recommendation. Read it!
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on June 11, 2000
I have read all of Barbara Kingsolver's novels and, in my opinion, this one is her best. Five different female perspectives are given of a family's Baptist missionary conquest in the Belgian Congo. Their experience in a remote African village affects the characters, all in different ways, for the rest of their lives. Generally their accounts are dark and somewhat frightening but cleverly Kingsolver uses the voice of Rachel, the eldest daugther, to provide satirical comic relief.
The Poisonwood Bible has been frequently criticized for evolving from a well developed and interesting story into a political diatribe. I thought, however, that perhaps Kingsolver was attempting to draw parallels between the actions of one man's religious mission and the intrusion of global superpowers in Africa. Both were manipulative, self serving, and had calamitous results. I believe Kingsolver's intention was to describe the effects of foreign interference on a small scale to illustrate what a disasterous impact western influence has upon Africa on a macro level.
Kingsolver was able to combine a powerful fictious story and use it to help the reader understand the travesty of what much of Africa is presently enduring and why. The read is engaging and exciting while, at the same time, informative and enlightening.
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