Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Poisonwood Bible

This is yet another Barbara Kingsolver, yet another of hers that I just love love love. Prodigal Summer is the book of hers that most fits my life and personal manifesto, so to speak, but this is probably her most powerful book to date.

This book is about the wife and four daughters of a Baptist missionary who takes his family to the Congo in 1959, supposedly for a year of service, and what happens to them all, how it changes them forever. It is just so strong. I can’t even think of how to describe it fully.

It is definitely educational, in the sense that a large part of Ms. Kingsolver’s work here is to teach you about how egocentric people can be, and how different cultures can be, and some of the very good reasons that might happen, and how dangerous it can be to think you know it all, in any situation. But the part I love best about it is the stunning writing, the very distinct voices of the women, the way each character has her own flow and mindset and it’s so perfectly conveyed to the reader. It just amazes me.

Also, as a complete side note and not really very related to the storyline, I have to mention that within the pages of this book is the most eloquent phraseology I can find that explains how I feel about eating meat, and why, while I certain hope I respect others’ choices about what to eat and what not to eat, for me the best answer is to eat things that have been treated well and that have allowed the earth to be treated well, and to not make the mistake of thinking that if I don’t eat a cow, I don’t take something’s life, or thinking that I know for sure what is and is not precious, what life is worth saving and what is not. Here it is:

“On the day of the hunt I came to know in the slick center of my bones this one thing: all animals kill to survive, and we are animals. The lion kills the baboon; the baboon kills fat grasshoppers. The elephant tears up living trees, dragging their precious roots from the dirt they love. The hungry antelope’s shadow passes over the startled grass. And we, even if we had no meat or even grass to gnaw, still boil our water to kill the invisible creatures that would like to kill us first. And swallow quinine pills. The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." (p. 347)

I forgot how much I loved this book.

Also, a less-serious side note: when I bought this book, approximately 13 years ago, I remember the guy at the checkout counter at the bookstore asking me what the heck it was about. When I explained it, he seemed relieved, and then said that he thought it was some kind of weird voodoo book. Ha! The title refers to the fact that the Kikongo words for “beloved” and “poisonwood” were easily confused by the missionary, leading to some confusing preaching on his part…Father Jesus is poisonwood?

Oh, and apparently poisonwood is a kind of branch that makes you itch and burn. Another example of how the missionary should have given more respect to the native language, among other things.

3 comments:

Charley said...

This is on my list, although I didn't have luck with The Bean Trees.

gwenolivia said...

Susan,
I love reading your book reviews. I remember beginning to read this book in high school, but I never got the chance to finish. Definitely will check the library for this on our next visit.

Gwen

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gwen about your reviews. The word "strong" so perfectly described this book. It, like Kingsolver's other books, changed me in ways subtle and profound. I forgot that her writing was so powerful, but I never forgot her books.
Mama