Book review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I grabbed a few books from “My Read Someday for Fun” pile; I was long overdue for reading this 1998 best seller. So, here I was enjoying an Alaskan cruise and engrossed in 1960s Belgian Congo. The younger generation should note this book of fifteen years ago, as well as those of us who have had it on the shelf unread. Kingsolver’s writing reminded me to give time to reading masterful narration. The Poisonwood Bible is an example of a fictional treatment of issues that deeply concern me, especially the devastation that patriarchy causes in society, family, and evangelism. Imagine a book that is both enlightenment and enjoyment in the same package. Perfect for vacation reading.
The cool glacial scenery passing by my window was quite dissonant with the hot African landscape playing out in my head. The fictional portrayal of patriarchy, as created by Barbara Kingsolver, confirms vividly the evil of subjugation of humans in weaker positions worldwide. Domination of all colors is illustrated in this book: imperialism, colonialism, economic disparity, political corruption, and environmental destruction, to name a few. All this suffering is especially reprehensible when allegedly endorsed by the Bible.
I am particularly interested in the destruction of human spirits and souls by patriarchy, and how it propels the characters in this commentary. Yet, where domination of any kind exerts influence, abuse by males over females is sure to follow. The story is told through the eyes of the five main female characters, four daughters and their mother, who are given alternating chapters. The voice of the main character, the man who wrecks such devastation, is never heard, but his actions inflict pain in the words of his family.
Granted, each character is a caricature. The daughters each have distinct personalities that describe their reaction to the African culture in voices that are clearly distinguishable. From oldest to youngest there is the vain superficial daughter, the one who strains against female restrictions, the physically disabled, underestimated daughter, and the youngest who still enjoys childhood. The mother and wife is the prototypical suffering wife until she too realizes her own strength to escape.
One would hope that the father, Rev. Price who is a Southern Baptist missionary, is actually the compendium of all possible atrocities represented by misguided missionary activities directed to the Congo of 1959. Could one man really have no redeeming qualities? We never hear his point of view. Only his wife retells his WW II experiences which in his mind justify his dogmatic approach to saving souls. Rev. Price counts his success by the number of baptisms he performs, regardless of cost. He dreams of showy baptisms in the nearby river, but cannot comprehend the villagers’ aversion to entering the river. He fails to appreciate the natives’ fear of the river where children are regularly attacked by crocodiles. His only expressed regret over the death of one daughter by snakebite is that he did not have the opportunity to use her baptism as an example, hopefully mustering up more converts. In the end, each member of his family is emotionally sacrificed, but the final chapters tell how each survives into the future in their own ways.
Kingsolver offers no answers, she only describes, as does all good literature. This story requires the reader to come to their own conclusions. One should not guess if these five female characters are “saved” or not. At the same time, I was also reading Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion Violence, and Power. His thesis is that where any form of violence is tolerated, it becomes more acceptable to exploit those who are weaker. I recommend the two books together as summer reading, but much more challenging than typical vacation reading. .
Another book that is a fictional portrayal of a dystopian patriarchal society is another older book, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Can anyone recommend more titles that are set in hierarchical societies and the resulting consequences? Take time to read some fiction during the last weeks of summer!