Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a Southern Baptist missionary family's transplantation to the Congo, their triumphs and troubles there, and the intricate nuances of the bond with Africa that remains for each individual member after the family disperses. Reverend Nathan Price accepts a mission in Kilanga, a remote part of the Congolese jungle, and brings his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May along for the ride. Rachel is a prissypants fifteen year old red-blooded American, Leah is a tomboy Daddy's girl, Adah is Leah's twin prodigy with a limp who doesn't speak because of a birth defect, and Ruth May is the cherished baby of the family, just five years old when they set out. Nathan's mission of bringing Christianity to the village is wildly unsuccessful (both because the village already has a strong spiritual religion and because Nathan is an AssHat) but even though the Congolese people take very little from the Prices, the Prices take a great deal of the Congo and the village into themselves. The story takes place in the midst of the fight for Congolese independence from the Belgian government (I know, who knew Belgium was out there being all imperialist and conquistadorlike? I wouldn't have expected it from such a tiny country!) and as the Prices' semi-normal new way of life begins to unravel, so does the country's politics. Ruth May is accidentally killed by a snake laid as a trap by a village elder (complex village hunting beef (AHGAHAGHAHG get it? Beef?), don't even Ask) and after that the Prices just fall apart. Orleanna finally decides to leave her scumbag, abusive, God-loving but super unChristian-acting husband, and strolls off with her daughters. Literally. She just walks off into the jungle. I know, badAss, right? Well, that, and super dangerous. Basically everyone gets malaria or some sort of disgusting parasite, and in the end, Adah and Orleanna go back to Georgia, Leah marries a friend from the Congo, Anatole, and sticks around, and Rachel goes off to marry some rando and live in South Africa. We follow the family for a few more decades, observing the marks their time in the Congo has left on them and the ways in which these marks dictate the course of their futures. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Reverend Price ends up sticking around in the Congo and continues to try to convert people against their will until things don't go too well with one village and he ends up Dead Dead Dead. The End.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
For the most part, I really enjoyed this book. I did feel that there was a noticeable dropoff after the family had dispersed, and that the writing wasn't as eloquent after that point. The coincidence of the Congo struggle for independence with the Price family mission was thought-provoking in the earlier part of the book, but I felt like the second part read more like a not-so-thinly-veiled political statement about the US and other countries' relationship with the Congo and less like the end of a really great novel. Which is too bad, because the earlier section (which really is about 3/4 of the book, so the grand majority) was, in my opinion, exquisite, and could seriously be a classic that stands the test of time. I am glad I was able to educate myself more about the Congo's history (to be clear, I'm referring generically to the Congo because most of the book takes place in the unified Congo, which is later split into the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC) and our complex (if mostly deplorable) history with the country.
In case your African geography is a bit rusty, here's Africa:
Here are a few of my thoughts on the book, in no real order:
On books informing those that come before and after
In writing this blog, I've often been struck by the seeming logic of one book flowing into the next. I know that this is entirely in my head, as the order of the books on the blog was random and not chosen. Still, I find it fascinating when it feels like I've read one book as a prelude to another, and that they are, in fact, chapters or volumes of the same novel split across planes of time and space. Before I read Poisonwood, I read As I Lay Dying, and in between As I Lay Dying and Poisonwood, I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for a book club I'm in with my sisters and two best friends. For some, these books might seem unrelated - separated by decades, written by authors from totally different experiences and geographies and genders and races - yet, I saw a beautiful symmetry in this trio. Both As I Lay Dying and Poisonwood follow families from the Deep South, and both rotate the narrator with each chapter, cycling through the family. In Poisonwood, the father is the only character not to narrate, and I wondered whether this was to further his vilification (we never see his side of things, so we think the worst) or whether it was too hard to write his point of view for the author, a woman, compared to the other, all female, family members. In Americanah, Adichie delves into race relations and what it means to be an outsider (a Black African, and Nigerian to be precise) in America, while Kingsolver deals with what it means to be an outsider (an American, and a White one) in Africa. So these three books, on the surface unrelated, fed intricately into and out of one another like a harmonious sonata.
And now, a family portrait. Readers, meet the Prices:
On religion: "I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who'd just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which Tata Nzolo is home at the moment."
On her inability to stand up to her husband, at least initially: "If there was still some part of a beautiful heathen girl in me, a girl drawn to admiration like a moth to moonlight, and her heart still pounded on Georgia nights when the peeper frogs called out from roadside ditches, she was too dumbfounded to speak up for herself."
On her early friendship with her future husband, Anatole, a Black Congolese man: "Most of all I want to ask Anatole this one unaskable question: Does he hate me for being white?"
On living in the Congo as a white woman later: "I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere, damn it. To scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do." I thought this was such a poignant moment. I really identified with Leah and her desire to feel the guilt and responsibility of whiteness but move forward with the culture of her husband and family at the same time. In my work with Breakthrough and City Year in Philadelphia, I often wanted to shed my whiteness, or find a way to obscure it. I knew how charged it was, and how difficult it could be for my students and their families to see anything but my whiteness when I walked into a room. Sometimes I still miss my City Year uniform, in all of its droopy pajama-esque unprofessional glory, because I felt like it announced that I was a helper with good intentions first, and a white woman second. Now I have to build that image for myself without the simple luxury of sliding on a red jacket.
"To them I am only Adah or, to my sisters sometimes, the drear monosyllabic Ade, lemonade, Band-Aid, frayed blockade, switchblade renegade, call a spade a spade."
Orleanna, on Ruth May: "the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after - oh, that's love by a different name. She is the babe you hold in your arms for an hour after she's gone to sleep. If you put her down in the crib, she might wake up changed and fly away. So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She's the one you can't put down." That's me, readers! I'm the BABY of the family - feel free to virtually squeeze my cheeks and rock me by the window!
And now for something completely different - DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS:
- What if the Americans, and the Belgians before them, hadn't tasted blood and money in Africa?
- Consider, even, an Africa unconquered altogether. Whoa. I know. Things just got Real.
- If the world of white men had never touched the Congo at all? Just a little Wednesday night musing for you. Have fun with that hypothetical!
The Prices inherit a parrot named Methuselah from Kilanga's previous missionary family.
"Parrots are known to be long-lived, and among all the world's birds, African Greys are best at imitating human speech. Methuselah may or may not have heard about this, for he mumbles badly." Mumbler mumbler Mumbler! I can't hear a word you're Saying!
"Sometimes at night he'd startle us when we forgot he spent his lonely nights in the latrine. Believe me, it gives you a queer feeling to sit down in the dark to pee and hear a voice right behind you declare, 'Sister, God is great!'"
On Methuselah being smarter than he looks: "It's one thing simply to call out, 'Sister, God is great! Shut the door!' when the spirit moves him, but he'll also call out 'banana' and 'peanut' as plain as day, when he sees these things in our hands and wants his share." If you feel like Crying tonight, go listen to this story on NPR about Alex the parrot, his brilliance, and his perception of emotions. I just listened to it again to test it and don't Worry Folks, it's still a TEARJerker. That's right, #parrotstoriesgetme
On finding Fahrenheit in other fiction
So I'll reiterate that I assume much of the connections I see are ones that I create for myself, but this line stood out to me from Poisonwood:
"It was neither diabolical nor divine."
It took me a second to figure out why, and then I remembered this line from Fahrenheit 451 -
"It was neither cricket nor correct."
Here's the line in context - it's from one of my favorite scenes in the book. Montag and the other firemen are trying to burn a woman's house down with her books, but she refuses to leave:
"The men were making too much noise, laughing, joking, to cover her terrible accusing silence below. She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about. It was neither cricket nor correct."
The danger of a single story
This post is getting long-winded, so I won't go into all the things I was going to address. One final big-picture thought for the night, from Leah: "I wish the people back home reading magazine stories about dancing cannibals could see something as ordinary as Anatole's clean white shirt and kind eyes, or Mama Mwanza with her children." Probably the greatest thing about this book, in my opinion, is that it humanizes Africa (the Congo, as well as a few other countries later on) and brings to bear the most natural commonalities of life that we share, while still drawing on the larger tensions that are taking place. It reminded me of this TED talk from Chimamanda Adichie where she discusses the dangers of limited storytelling and the power of sharing multiple threads of the same experience. If you have the time, you should listen to the whole thing. It speaks so eloquently to this thought of Leah's.
Words We Will Get Wind Of TogeTher! A continuation of our vocabulary lesson!
vestigial - forming a very small remnant of something that was once much larger or more noticeable (As in, there are but vestigial remains of that piece of Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie now that I got my grubby paws on it.)
gallimaufry - a confused jumble or medley of things; alt., a dish made from diced or minced meat, esp. a hash or ragout (As in, this post is quite the gallimaufry; or, I'd rather not have the gallimaufry for dinner - I'm feeling vegetarian tonight!)
putative - generally considered or reputed to be (As in, Hillary Clinton is the putative Democratic contender for the 2018 presidency, despite Meredith's apathetic stance toward her.)
pirogue - a long narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk, esp. in Central America and the Caribbean (As in, has anyone seen my pirogue? I carved it from my favorite Tree and now I can't find it ANYWHERE!)
pullet - a young hen, esp. one less than one year old (As in, Suzy loves a good pullet for a snack)
vermifuge - an agent that destroys or expels parasitic worms (As in, I could use a good vermifuge to attack the hookworm I picked up last year. (NB - HYPOTHETICAL. I don't have hookworm.))
- "Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened."
- One of Adah's singsong phrases: "Sunrise tantalize, evil eyes hypnotize: that is the morning, Congo pink."
- Orleanna, on the Congo: "The gloom, the humidity, the permanent sour breath of rainy season all bore down on me like a bothersome lover."
- "Six months is a long time for a family to tolerate itself without any outside distractions." you're telling me! I love my family, but six months of Just us together? Whew.
- "Our mother used to have mystery under her skin."
This is the line I pulled the title from. I loved the eloquence of it and I like the heft of it. So readers, live and let yourself be marked. Acquire your own story, but make sure everyone knows all your stories, not a single version. And celebrate your life and the lives of those that intersect with yours and rejoice in knowing that history will be different because you lived.
I wish you all happiness, leaves that change color, and warm beverages with a brisk wind at your back. Fall approaches! Perhaps I can PERSUADE you to join me for my next challenge, Influence by Dane Boston? That's not quite right... is it?