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The Poisonwood Bible ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

This was, quite simply, the most hateful book that I have ever read. This 550 page diatribe against Western Civilization in general & white, male, able-bodied, Christians in specific, is shockingly intolerant. Moreover, it is filled with a kind of self-loathing that makes one question the author's mental stability. And if all that's not enough, it is crammed with a Soviet view of Congolese history that's barely worthy of Oliver Stone. I hardly know where to start.

Let's begin with the story:

Nathan Price is a Baptist missionary to the Congo, which is on the verge of independence. He brings with him his wife & four daughters. As Nathan struggles to bring villagers to Jesus, Kingsolver presents us with the maundering maudlin mewlings of his daughters: Rachel, the oldest at 16, is an
archetypal ditsy blonde who offers us a relentless series of annoying malaprops and spoonerisms (i.e., tapestry of justice, plebiscites instead of parasites & monotony instead of monogamy); Leah & Adah, twin 14 year olds, Leah is healthy but Adah has hemiplegia, apparently one side of her brain is defective so she speaks little & thinks in palindromes & backwards sentences, etc.; & Ruth May,
the youngster at 5. The whole story is framed by the reminiscences of his wife Orleanna, safely back in Georgia & looking back at the horrors of their Congo experience.

And what were those horrors? "The horror, the horror" is, of course, the dying declaration of Kurtz, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In that case, Conrad's narrator has just weathered a trip up the Congo where he confronted headhunters and cannibals, in search of Kurtz, who has determined that the only way to save the Africans is to "exterminate the brutes". And readers of Peter Forbarth's great books The Last Hero & King of the Kongo will recall the trials & tribulations faced by explorers like Morton Stanley in the Congo. So we're prepared for just about anything & wait with baited breath for the horrors to descend on the Prices. Instead, we find out that the worst they faced was the absence of Breck Shampoo, the presence of clumpy Betty Crocker cake mix & some pesky ants.

While the women bitch incessantly about these formidable hardships & Mrs. Price, overwhelmed, takes to her bed, Nathan (who significantly enough is the only Price who is not allowed a role in the narration of the novel) has gathered a small congregation.  Kingsolver makes great hay out of the fact that the churchgoers are the village's losers--the luckless, those who have had twins (a great evil in their society), etc., whereas the more powerful villagers cling to animism. Gee, you're kidding, Christianity is a appealing to a society's most downtrodden members? Who'da thunk it?

Nathan, however, has trouble in communicating effectively with the villagers. He wants them to come to the river & be baptized, but unbeknownst to him they're afraid of crocodiles. He tries using Kongolese words but instead of calling Jesus most beloved, can be understood to be calling him poisonwood. Of course, no one bothers to point these things out to him, so his proselytizing struggles

The book's turning point comes when the village shaman murders Ruth May, by planting a green mamba snake in their henhouse (it's actually intended for their native servant), and the village chief demands a vote on whether the village should accept Jesus. Jesus loses the vote. (Serendipitously, Ruth May is murdered on the same day that Patrice Lumumba is assassinated).

Upon the death of her daughter, Orleanna decides to desert her husband and Africa  (oh, and two of her other daughters) & return to America. She tells us, "Anyone can see I should have, long before..." & "To resist occupation, whether you're a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean
squat, basically, when you have hungry children..."  Huh? Her husband's obviously not at fault for Ruth May's murder & Orleanna sat around in bed most of the time they were there & let her hungry daughters do all the housework, while her husband ran the mission for the villagers. What right does she have to complain about anyone?

But, lest we harbor any fear of oppressive men like the Reverend Price, she informs us, "his kind always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it's wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same; they stand still...". Having had the effrontery to equate her unhappy marriage with the genuine suffering that the Congo underwent during a century of harsh colonialism, she assures us that it was okay for her to cut and run.

Meanwhile, in the book's only truly sublime moment, the Reverend Price reacts to his daughter's death by baptizing the children of the village without making them go to the river. Realizing that Ruth May had not yet been baptized, he compromises his own beliefs to save the souls of these children. Of course, the meaning of his ineffably tender action eludes the author.

The second half of the book chronicles the subsequent thirty years of the daughters lives. Rachel, a doppelganger for Kurtz' fiancee in Heart of Darkness, heads to South Africa & stews in her self-righteous imperialist juices. Leah stays & marries a native & Adah returns to America & becomes a doctor. Mrs.. Price becomes a recluse in Georgia & they subsequently learn that the Reverend was immolated by villagers who feared him.

As to the hysterical portrait of the Congolese struggle for independence:

Yes, the Congo was an important flashpoint during the Cold War because of it's deposits of minerals & industrial diamonds. Both the US and the Soviet Union had an interest in maintaining access to these resources. Obviously, these interests were potentially threatened by Congolese independence.

Belgium was undeniably an oppressive taskmaster during most of her stewardship over the Congo. But by the time of independence that had changed. First of all, Belgium had decided to grant independence, but wanted to move slowly because, and this was clearly Belgium's own fault, there were so few natives with professional training. But, contrary to Kingsolver's assertion, Congo had one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, over 40%. In addition, industrial production was growing rapidly and the country has vast natural resources. The underlying conditions seemed to be favorable for a gradual transition to a successful independent nation.

Instead, the Congolese demanded immediate independence and Belgium acquiesced.  Patrice Lumumba, who even those sympathetic to his cause concede was unbalanced, became the fledgling nation's first Prime Minister on June 30, 1960, and within five days native troops mutinied and began raping and slaughtering whites and natives alike. Belgium sent her own troops back in to try to restore order and Katanga province, under the Christian and pro-Western leader Moise Tshombe, declared its independence from the Congo. Lumumba immediately aligned himself with the Soviet Union.

The UN, under the notoriously anti-Western Dag Hammarskjold, intervened and sent in troops to prop up Lumumba & quell the uprising in Katanga. This intervention was the bloodiest episode in UN history as UN planes actually ran bombing missions in Katanga. The UN troops used in this exercise specifically excluded Western Bloc nations like America. Hammarskjold viewed the UN as a sort of
third side in the Cold War; a secular, liberal, non-aligned alternative to East and West.

In the months that followed, President Joseph Kasavubu demanded that Lumumba step down but he refused. Troops under Joseph Mobutu staged a coup and shipped a badly beaten Lumumba to Katanga where he was murdered. (There is some evidence that the CIA wanted Lumumba assassinated, but internal Congolese politics beat them to the punch.) Tshombe eventually abandoned Katanga's drive for secession and became Prime Minister of the entire Congo before Mobutu drove him into exile.

Kingsolver takes this set of facts and turns it into some sort of grand Eisenhower-led attempt to impose the American will on peaceloving Lumumba and the people of the Congo. She seems to have synthesized the paranoiac musing of the Church Committee, Tass, Pravda and the Black Power movement into a rich fallacious stew. Her misrepresentations are myriad:

    Kingsolver: Lumumba threw out the Belgians

    Fact: The Belgians made a horrible miscalculation & left willingly.

    Kingsolver: Intervention was for the purpose of securing the natural resources

    Fact: Pro-western Katanga province had the resources. Why would we support the UN effort to
            restore Katanga to pro-Soviet Congolese control?

    Kingsolver: Intervention was Ike lead & US run

    Fact: UN lead & UN run

    Kingsolver: UN forces were US troops & left over Bay of Pigs mercenaries

    Fact: No US forces

    Kingsolver: Ike, Ike, Ike. She repeatedly uses his name, as if all of the subsequent violence in the
                     Congo was his fault.

    Fact: JFK became president in January 1961. Doesn't he share any blame? Moreover, this was 40
            years ago. At what point do the hapless natives have to take some responsibility for their own

    Kingsolver: Western nations leant money, knowing the Congo would screw things up & then the
                        debt would keep them in line

    Fact: the US sent $500 million into a rat hole & never saw it again

    Kingsolver: The internecine fighting in Congo was purely a result of US/Soviet power politics

    Fact: It's no coincidence that major players like Lumumba & Tshombe came from different tribes
            & regions. Their enmity was as old as the continent.

    Kingsolver: Christian missionaries like the Reverend Price had no effect on the natives.

    Fact: The population is 70% Christian.

    Kingsolver: The Congo was an idyllic place prior to colonization & would be better off if we'd
                        never gone.

    Fact: Maybe.  Let's leave them to their genocide & starvation & female genital mutilation & tribal
            warfare. The Cold War's over & we don't need them anymore.  Who cares? Here's one little
            fact to keep in mind though , the ratio of male births to female births in the Congo today is
            1.03 to 1. The only explanation for this is infanticide of female babies. That's the
            deWesternized Congo of today. Happy now?

On to the hate and self-loathing:

Kingsolver's hatred of Christians is most clearly shown, if not in the title of the book, then by the paltriness of the sins she lays at the feet of the Reverend Price. Her assumption that we will join her in hating him simply because he made his family's life a little uncomfortable, shows that she's blinded by her own pathology. Contrast her attitude towards Price with her attitude towards medical aid workers or Brother Fowles, who abandoned Christianity and went native; she applauds their courage, why not Price's?

Or take Leah's statement that she learned from her husband that "One way of surviving heartache is to stay busy. Making something right in at least one tiny corner of the vast house of wrongs." She didn't learn that from her husband. It is the lesson that her father's life teaches all of us; if we will open our eyes to it.

There's a great vogue in reimagining literary works from the perspective of secondary characters--the movie Friday is his version of Robinson Crusoe, Peter Carey's book Jack Maggs is Magwitch's version of Great Expectations, etc... I hope someone will someday tell us the Reverend Price's version of this story.

Kingsolver's willingness to accept and propagate all of the lies above is obviously symptomatic of a kind of America-hating self-loathing (What else should we expect from someone who had Mumia Abu-Jamal, a malevolent copkilling terrorist, proof read her book). But the depth of this self hatred becomes obvious in the narration of the twins.

When a doctor confronts Adah with the fact that her hemiplegia is hypochondriacal, she resents losing her deformity. "We are our injuries", she says. Adah, and Kingsolver, assume that her crippled view of the world had provided her with special insights that have some unique value. What can we say
about someone who is bitter that she's healthy?

Meanwhile, Leah actually voices the following thought, "I want to...scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing white skin craves to be touched and held by the one man on earth I know has forgiven me for it." This is not the sentiment of a well person.

I pity Ms Kingsolver. What a horrible thing it is to be white & healthy. We can only thank the Earth Mother that she was not saddled with the additional burden that I and millions like me must face up to everyday. Imagine how much greater is the load I must carry, for I am also a male and a Baptist. Assuredly she would whither under such a weight.

I am enjoying reading these book club selections because they are acquainting me with the state of women's literature. But I have to admit that I'm amazed at how little progress has been made. It seems to me that books like this are representative of a kind of arrested development. It's time to get past blaming Western man for all of the worlds ills. Enough gynecentrism & vagipolitical tripe! Get on with the business of producing a fiction that is true and universal and instructive. Get over it. Get over us.

Amy Reilly response to Orrin's Poisonwood review:

A few major points I'd take issue with: when Orleanna talks about "the horror" she is not talking lack of Betty Crocker and Breck shampoo. She is talking about the death of her youngest daughter and the disintegration of her family. By the time her ordeal is over with, I think Orleanna has become a lot less superficial than she was when she started. Her suffering over the loss of Ruth Mae was real. That's pretty much the worst thing I can imagine ever happening to a mother -- having a child die, and blaming yourself -- legitimately in some respects.

Kingsolver's politics bothered you a lot more than they did me -- but I will agree with you that it was VERY annoying that she even had them in there to begin with. At one point the characters DO start to sound like mouthpieces for Kingsolver. When the reader begins to really notice the author's presence -- rather than the characters -- that's a flaw, in my mind. The politics per se didn't bother me -- to each his own. Plus, I'm not knowledgable enough about the history of the Belgian Congo to take sides one way or another.

I guess I had zero sympathy for Nathan -- not because he's a white man, but because he was a nut job. He had an arrogance that I found annoying: was he "saving" the natives for their benefit or for his ego? I think the latter.  His religion didn't make sense for them, and he was unable to adapt it to
their reality. A perfect example is baptism in the river full of crocodiles. A small thing, but symbolic. It just doesn't make sense to get baptised in a river full of crocodiles. But he couldn't adapt to this.
Also, he was unable to see beyond himself. He couldn't see what the natives needed; he couldn't see what his family needed; and most of all he failed as a father: when his family was falling apart he did nothing. He was not able to recognize it, or deal with it. The same is true of Orleanna, but at least she snapped out of it enough to realize she had to take action. Maybe her action wasn't perfect (don't know how one can "choose" which children to save) but at least her parental instict kicked in. Nathan's never did.  Don't think he had any to begin with. THAT's why I had no sympathy for
Nathan, not because he was a white man. Because he let his children suffer, and one died. That I don't understand.

Oh one more thing. I kind of liked all the verbal play. Rachel's "miscontstrued lyrics" (a game we used to play at Colgate); Adah's palindromes; and even the way Nathan's words often got garbled in translation. I thought it was almost like a sub-theme running through the book: communication is very complex, and words are only one small part.  Language is a flexible, chameleon-esque tool, and the tiniest miss can result in chaos and complete misunderstanding.

Sue Herzog responds:

I'm somewhat torn. I hated it for the first 20 pages or so-- the "white guilt" theme began on page 1 which her books always smack heavy of-- but then did get interested mostly in the description of the
environment, people, clothes, etc. as they evoked a lot of memories from Rwanda many of which I'd forgotten including some of missionairies who were killing themselves for their cause. Kingsolver clearly was there and certain moments and scenes very well drawn.

I agree that the characters weren't particularly credible and didn't empathize with any. However, I truly loathed him although admittedly his character was the most cartoonlike of the bunch so this isn't really fair.  However, I've no interest in a narrative told from his point of view as I've met people cast in his vein who trod stoically but pathetically down their path unable to see anything or even think about anything from anyone else's perspective. I'm also sympathetic to her view that there are huge
cultural differences and you have to adjust to the environment -- not go truly native and not signing onto the really weird or wretched intertribal stuff -- but at least be cognizant of the whys of certain practices & beliefs. I've seen real people in action like the Fowles in action who are true givers in whatever religion or higher morality setting you want to affiliate with them..

As to the politics, I didn't know enough of the story to separate fact from fiction until I got your note and mean to do some more wading around on the web. Nevertheless, I don't think there are any true black & white lines to be drawn in a global morass like this situation -- but a lot of shades of grey.

Bottom line, it was an interesting read primarily because of the memories it evoked. I've no real desire to read any more Kingsolver (I've only every read Bean Tree). As to Amy's characterization of the human soul and oppression, the story and characters were too shallow for me to think on that "higher" plane.

Brooke Judd responds to Orrin's Poisonwood review:

I read your reviews for the Westchester book club - first of all, thanks for saying that it was Ruth May who gets offed. Now I'm definitely not going to finish reading it! Second - you are a NUT JOB! How can you possibly be so sympathetic to Nathan Price??? Granted, we didn't hear his side of the story, but you're deluding yourself about his righteousness - he dragged his family to Africa to try to expel the ghosts in his own closet, didn't give a "good goddam" (Editor's prerogative exercised) about his family AND BEAT THEM! Stop being so defensive about being a white male - NOTHING has been out of your reach because of it - and, as your mother says, you're about as much of a Baptist at this point as I am! And who is Amy Reilly - I liked what she had to say! Find me a happy book to read, please.


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Barbara Kingsolver Official Page (from Harper Collins)
    -REVIEW: of Poisonwood Bible (Missouri Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Poisonwood Bible : Missions Improbable :  A stickler for accuracy flubs her facts, while a producer of page-turners leaves his readers reflective (Wendy Murray Zoba, Books & Culture)
    -READERS GUIDE :  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver  (Book Browse)

    -Female Genital Mutilation
    -Katanga: Congo's Seccessionist Nightmare
    -Remember Lumumba!
    -World Factbook (entry on zaire/democratic Republic of Congo)
   -REVIEW : of The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte (Richard Bernstein,