Brandon's Notepad

August 30, 2014

The Poisonwood Bible

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The Poisonwood Bible
This is a short review of The Poisonwood Bible, written by Barbara Kingsolver, narrated by Dean Robertson.

This book, written by a best-selling author, was published in 1998. A year later, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and added to Oprah’s Book Club. It is the story of a Baptist missionary family that moved to the Congo, Africa in 1959. Written in the first-person from the perspective of Orleanna, the wife of Rev. Nathan Price, and her four daughters, each chapter reads like an entry out of their respective diaries. The daughters range from ages five to fifteen when the story begins. Their narratives vary in tone and sophistication in accordance with the girls’ ages and personalities. Most of the plot covers the few years they spend adjusting to life in Africa and the tribulations they face as colonial Belgian Congo gains its independence, becoming the “République du Congo” and eventually Zaïre . The latter chapters move swiftly through the adult lives of the daughters, over a period of twenty years or so, after most of the family moved back to the United States or to other parts of Africa.

This is a historical novel. The plot and the characters are fictional, but the descriptions of the setting and the Congolese people, as well as the political atmosphere of the time are all rooted in fact (though I am not qualified to state how precisely the history is represented). The story is a simple one really, with the intricacies brought forth primarily in the characterization rather than the plot. By the end of the book, you really feel like you know these people. There is a lot of drama, a healthy dose of situational humor, and some suspense — something for everyone.

I really must say more about the characterization, for that really is the genius of this book. Each chapter is narrated by Orleanna or (more often) by a one of the daughters. Because I was listening to the audiobook, it took me a few chapters to catch on. Each chapter begins with the name of the person from whose perspective it is written (reminiscent of William Faulkner). Once I had worked out that little detail, it was much easier to follow along. Each character has her own style and vocabulary. Ruth May, the youngest daughter, uses simple words and understands basic concepts, with a few misconceptions that add a certain cuteness factor. The middle daughters, Leah and Adah, are teenage twins whose narratives are far more sophisticated and convey plainly the striking differences in their personalities. The eldest daughter, Rachel, is conceited a bit flighty, not the brightest bulb in the pack. This is reflected in her chapter through the misuse of common words and phrases, such as “took for granite” (granted) and “give up the goat” (ghost). The maturation of the girls and the bitter transformation of Orleanna are manifest in evolution of their writing styles as the story progresses.

The only negative aspect (IMHO) is that the author really downplays religion. In the end, it seems that there is no discernible difference between the overzealous Rev. Price and Tata Kuvudundu, the village witch doctor. Christianity is made to appear irrelevant and impractical in The Congo…well, perhaps with one exception. Brother Fowles, who is Price’s predecessor and a late disciple of Saint Francis Assisi, in discussing with Orleanna the state of the mission makes the comment that “there are Christians and then there are Christians,” implying that real Christian love isn’t about dunking as many people in the river as possible, but about serving one another and teaching the Gospel by example instead of by preaching. I would say that this was an awesome testament to Catholicism (Fowles is a follower of Francis after all) if it ended in some other way, for by the end of the book, all of the (surviving) women in the family have basically rejected their Christian faith and blame God for their worldly woes. I suspect this book appeals very much to the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd, and I certainly would not advise that any Christian turn to it for spiritual guidance or insight.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the narration (which started off rather shrill). Robertson added variation to the voices, an additional element the characterization, something far more tangible than just their words.

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