The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In the first few pages of this novel, set in Zaire from 1959 into the present time, I found two quotations that I liked a lot.

“I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book.”

“The forest eats itself and lives forever.”

After that, the story took over, and I forgot to keep track of individual sentences and paragraphs. It’s the story of a missionary family in Belgian Congo (Zaire) who set out to convert the Africans to Christianity and of the way that Africa transforms each member of that family. Ms. Kingsolver’s use of words and phrases in this novel is beautiful. I also liked the way the story was told from differing points of view: the dutiful daughter who becomes more African than the Africans themselves, the oldest daughter who worships, not books, but rather material comforts, and the odd twin whose disability and intelligence give her the detachment and eccentricity to do something that will truly help the African people. Even the youngest daughter, the sacrificial lamb of the family, tells the story from her vantage point some of the time.

The father, the preacher in the story, is a caricature. White missionaries to Africa are almost always caricatures: clumsy, insensitive, argumentative, violent, and self-absorbed. These fictional Cartoon Missionaries are always unable to communicate, always sure that Christianity is synonomous with American culture, always convinced that all truth resides in themselves and their own ideas. Although there were and probably still are missionaries who approach the spread of the gospel (good news) in this manner, I’ve met many missionaries, Southern Baptist and other evangelical missionaries, and I didn’t find them, for the most part, to be culturally insensitive or arrogant at all.

In spite of this stereotypical villain, I enjoyed reading The Poisonwood Bible. Some of the ideas, philosophies and scenes within the novel have stuck with me. I’m, in fact, still thinking about the novel and its implications a month and a half after having read it. Some of those “sticky” thoughts:

Africa is a vast and complicated continent, and understanding even the culture of one country within that huge continent of more than sixty countries and many more people groups would be the work of a lifetime.

It’s not really possible to understand and become a part of a culture outside of your own —even with the work of a lifetime. However, I believe Jesus transcends culture and unifies Christians across cultural lines.

African Christians have much to teach us about how to follow Christ and how to live lives of simple discipleship and obedience. However, I’m not sure that anyone is listening. One group wants Africans to fit into Rousseau’s ideal of the “Noble Savage” and not to adopt Christianity at all, and another is still stuck in a less extreme version of what the preacher father preached in this book: “see what we (western) Christians can do for the poor benighted Africans.”

Sisters, even twins, can grow up to hold very different views of the world and to espouse very different causes and beliefs. Even so, they can’t completely escape the link that growing up in the same family, and perhaps heredity, gives them. Sisters are inextricably bound together in some ways by their past and their shared heritage.

I can’t forget the image of an army of ants moving across the landscape devouring everything in sight. Could an army of insects, literal or figurative, devour our culture someday and make all that we’ve said, written, and invented, irrelevent?

Barbara Kingsolver’s website.

6 thoughts on “The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I read this book several years ago and disliked it a lot. However, I enjoyed seeing it from your perspective and thinking about the thoughts it provoked from you.

    I have a great-aunt who was a medical missionary to the Belgian Congo back in the 50’s and after I read the book I asked her if she had read it, and if so, what she thought of it. She said she enjoyed it because it reminded her so much of her beloved Congolese friends, and she thought the different views from the sisters was a brilliant stroke by the author.

  2. 3M

    Thank you so much for this review. I had this on my 2007 TBR list and because of so many challenges, moved it to 2008. I am looking forward to reading it–whenever that is.

  3. I loved this book. Thought it was very interesting. You might also enjoy a similar book, Swimming in the Congo, which I call “Poisonwood Bible light.”

  4. I am glad you liked this book. It seems that I’ve seen several negative reviews of it recently. I loved it.

    I’ve spent my whole life around missionaries, and while I’ve met quite a few who were ethnocentric and obnoxious, I find Nathan to be extreme. However, I am willing to suspend disbelief. I found the book to be close to magical realism in places. I haven’t been to Congo but that’s the way I think of it – a vast jungle of a place where anything can happen.

    My favorite part of the book is after the girls are grown, and seeing the different responses they have to their African experience.

    I think I need to go re-read this book.

  5. Kim D

    Enjoyed your review. I thought this book was well-written and thought provoking. Yes, I agree the father was extreme but some of his personality traits would tend to become extreme in an isolated situation. Several of my friends have liked the book also. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I just finished this for book group discussion and then had to miss the discussion. The ants invasion was absolutely the most unforgettable scene in the story.

    Her comments about the fragility of the ecosystem and the role of the high infant death rate and diseases have in keeping the population at sustainable a level has haunted me as famine, genocide and disease sweep the continent. I wish I had not missed the discussion last week.

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