Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Tata Jesus is Bangala!

Jesus is the Poisonwood Tree!

If you've read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, please comment with your own thoughts & opinions. If you haven't read the book you can skip this post to avoid spoilers, or alternately feel free to judge this book by it's cover. ;)

Wow, this book was incredible. I loved the way Kingsolver told the story from the perspectives of each of the women (girls). She does an incredible job of giving each of the women a different voice. As difficult as it was for me to decipher Adah's voice I really loved it. For all her slant, she was the most straight shooting. Nathan Price doesn't get his own voice in the novel, but I'm okay with that. It seems like he's the only member of the family who gets a voice outside the home - at least for the first half of the book.

Two parts I found especially striking - when the ants swarm and start attacking, and when the villagers set fire to the hill to hunt the animals. Both were on the one hand inhuman tragedies, and on the other hand absolutely necessary for survival. Safe in my apartment with hot & cold running water & a refrigerator full of food, actually being in a situation like that is incomprehensible to me. For all my college degree and technical expertise, I would be completely unprepared to face either of those situations. Kill or be killed. My life is so far removed from this most basic principles of life. Adah echos this lesson at the end when she talks about studying viruses:

"We and our vermin all blossomed together out of the same humid soil in the Great Rift Valley and so far no one is really winning. Five million years is a long partnership. If you could rise up out of your own beloved skin and appraise ant, human, and virus as equally resourceful beings, you might admire the accord they have all struck in Africa. Back in your skin, of course, you'll shriek for a cure." (p.529)

So that was one big theme that struck me, the balance between life & death.

The other major theme is, of course, religion. Nathan Price brings his own brand of God. While he is described as Baptist, I think it's pretty clear that his mission was not exactly sanctioned by the church, and he's pretty far off the deep end of theology.

(In the interest of full disclosure let me admit that once upon a time, in fact on my second date with my High School boyfriend, I stood up in church signifying my willingness to be called as a missionary one day. Good times... good times.)

I hate his character more than I've ever hated a fictional character, more than Snape even. ;) Kingsolver does a pretty good job of painting him as an incredibly arrogant and delusional person. A poisonous combination indeed. I liked that she gave him a little depth, we know why he is the way he is. But I still don't like him!

Orleanna Price is not an altogether sympathetic character. In some ways, she's the classic trapped wife, she's been isolated from friends and families, completely removed from any support network she might otherwise have had. But I still think she had a few opportunities to escape before she lost her child. I'm glad that she did eventually leave, and in the end tried her best to secure the safety of her remaining children. But in the aftermath, she does redeem herself somewhat. She becomes an activist and does what she can to work for justice, and to take care of what's left of her family.

Leah probably does the best job of adapting to her situation, initially by learning to hunt, learning the language, working in the schools etc., then of course by marrying Anatole. It's interesting though that as much as she adapts to Africa, she will forever remain an outsider. She'll always be the white girl while in Africa, but she can never really come home again either.

Then there's Rachel...as really horrid as she seems, I can't avoid the fact that she is really the everywoman. Her concerns are no different than mine if I'm honest. I worry about frizzy hair, and what to wear. It's an important part of our culture, as much as we try not to get sucked up by it.

And poor little Ruth May, so sad. The sacrificial lamb I guess.

All in all, an incredible book, which gave me a lot to think about, not the least of which - the US foreign policy, and such a cheerful topic it is. :(

Between reading The Poisonwood Bible and watching the rest of the Roots DVDs, I've got a double dose of White People are the Root of All Evil. I know we do a lot of bad things... but I have no idea how to fix it all. I do what I can.

Anyway after all that doom & gloom... I started rereading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the nice little book with "Don't Panic" written on it in big friendly letters. It's cheering me up nicely. Such a deliciously absurd book.

Opinions on the Poisonwood Bible/missionaries/Africa/anything? I'd be interested to hear what other people got out of the book.


Libby said...

I read this in 2001 so a pretty many years ago. I do remember it being an amazing book. I wish I could remember more about it! My grandmother insisted that I read it because I was planning a trip to Africa (which I did take) and I think she wanted to scare me off it. She was NEVER okay with me being in Africa. (But of course you can't really generalize from the Poisonwood Bible to the rest of the continent, Gram!)

I was an African studies major for a while and once you start reading depressing books about how white people screwed up Africa it starts to seem like there's no end in sight! I'm going to make it my goal to read more books about positive things going on in Africa...I did read one recently, "There is No Me Without You", definitely a great read. Obviously there have been and are lots of problems and tragedies in Africa but I feel like there's a lot to be said for focusing on the positive...

IamSusie said...

I also read this ages ago and couldn't put it down. I remember loving the African setting, but I got tired of the evil Christian father theme. A fun, light African series is the #1 Ladies Detective books. These are so pleasant and fun.

Bezzie said...

I couldn't bring myself to hate Nathan all the way. I mean yeah he's despicable, but I can't help but think that he was probably mentally ill. And part of me feels bad for hating someone just because they're mentally ill. I think sometimes Jesus fills the void in some people that say drugs or alcohol fill in others. Not to say that Jesus-love is an addiction that needs to be managed like say alcoholism, but I think in some extreme cases--like Nathan, it might be.

I like Leah the best, but merely on the face value that my best friend from HS married a man 16 years her senior from Senegal.

I thought Rachel was a little over-stereotyped as the Miss Priss chain smoking misplaced Southern Gentlewoman stuck in hell. But that could have just been me...

Michael5000 said...

I quite liked the Poisonwood Bible. The image of the mom bringing cake mix to the Congolese bush has really stuck with me.

In one sense, I thought the book was a great vehicle for helping we North Americans get our head around Africa generally, or independence-era Zaireian politics specifically. But, it also felt like that was too obviously Kingsolver's intent, and that she maybe erred on the didactic side.

Rebel said...

Libby - I'm jealous of your world travels! I've been thinking of joining the peace corps and read this book as a 'what not to do' guide. I'll have to check out that book for a more hopeful point of view.

Susie - I read #1 Ladies Detective Agency and really liked that one too. Very sweet story.

Bezzie - Religion can seriously be an addiction for some people, I've seen it. And I think in some cases it can be every bit as destructive as alcohol or drugs. And I cannot believe you didn't bring out the "died & turned into a zombie" plot analysis for this one - Ruth May totally fits that bill!

M5K - I think she focused most of her teaching in Leah's chapters. She's the know-it-all, so to me it fit. I thought it was a good balance of the personal & political.

Magatha said...

I never read that Kingsolver book. I've read all her others including the non fiction. One of my favorite books is her "Animal Dreams".
Poisonwood just got way too much Oprah play for my comfort. Kind of a turn off for me. Another one of my favorite books, "The Corrections" was on the Oprah hit list too, but I glommed onto it because of the controversy.
I am glad you enjoyed the PB and moreover, are a reader of paper. Hooray!

Nancy D. :) said...

I read it awhile back - the only thing I remember for sure is that the father is characterized distinctly as a narrow-minded Baptist preacher who does not absorb the value of cultural distinctions. I guess that is all I took away for the long term - not very insightful! :) I have not read your thoughts on it, just wanted to leave my mark on your blog :) Nancy

Rebel said...

Yay! Welcome to my blog. =)

Yeah, I don't think Nathan is a fair representative of Baptist missionaries either.

jenn said...

I read this book recently, while I was actually in Africa (or course, my accomodations, while modest, were not quite so rustic).

I liked that the entire action of the story was told only through the voices of the daughters; that whole "I see a lot of things happening but I don't exactly know what's going on because I'm just a kid" perspective seemed to have heightened the feeling of being someplace foreign and challenging.

As for being addicted to religion (or your own distorted version of it), allow me to paraphrase from another great book told from a child's perspective, To Kill a Mockingbird, where Miss Maudie is telling Scout why Nathan Radley keeps his son (Boo Radley) locked up: "Sometimes a bible in the hand of one man is as dangerous as a whiskey bottle in the hand of another."

Batty said...

I'll get around to reading this eventually. I really want to.

jovaliquilts said...

I read this book 6 or 7 years ago and it's still number one on my list of the best books I've ever read. It had a deeply visceral impact on me. I share some similarities with the family -- my father was a strong-willed minister, 3 girls and 1 boy in our family, we spent 4 years in Central America where the jungle grew up to our door -- and perhaps that's why the book resonated with me. I did not have the extreme experiences portrayed in the book, but nonetheless the book struck at my core. I have reread the first couple pages (which are amazing) any number of times, but have never been able to reread the book. I just can't do it. Many of the images in the book are still as clear to me as if I had read them yesterday. Truly a great work.

Alisa said...

Loved it! Loved Leah and family's reactions/observations to the US when they returned...lack of smells, food shopping, house, etc.