Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bloggers' Book Club - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Phew! I just put down this amazing book after re-reading it with pleasure for the Bloggers' Book Club's July choice. I first read it for our own book club about 10 years ago and the decade did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for what must rate as my best book ever! It left a lasting impression on me and it drew so many images and brought back so many African memories that I thought it was just me who was so taken with it, so it surprised me that so many of my fellow-book club friends felt the same. It wasn't just that a number of us had lived in Africa for prolonged periods of our lives, it seemed to resonate equally with those who had never set foot on the continent.

It spoke to me particularly because I could identify with the characters she described; I had met many Baptist missionaries in Tanzania and had flown on a number of occasions with Baptist pilots who didn't quite inspire confidence by praying before take-off. This was before I knew them and their ways well enough to know this was the norm - and indeed I had a few issues with their evangelising and their lifestyle which seemed to be at complete loggerheads with the Africa I knew. At the risk of offending any Baptist readers, I couldn't reconcile the loving God I was familiar with and the intolerant wealth-loving God they promulgated. Nor could I accept the luxury in which most of them lived, with aircon homes straight out of their home states in America, even carpeted and replete with Lazy-Boy recliners in the heart of the bush. They relaxed by hunting down and killing anything on four legs that didn't have CITES status, and kept their NRA membership as active on the African savannah as in the deer-hunting woods back home. There was such a dichotomy in the presumed humility of those out to spread the word of God and the arrogant smugness at the righteousness of their mission - when asked how long they planned to stay in Africa the stock answer was "As long as the Lord wishes" - which led to my approaching the book with all my prejudices and preconceptions alive and well.

It didn't disappoint. I just give this background to place the book in context - I re-read with the anticipation of visiting a well-known familiar place - and it brought the smells and sounds of Africa alive for me. Many an evening in Kigoma we sat on the veranda of the then Railway Hotel and looked across the second-deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika, and admired the sunset behind the hills of then-Zaire, about 70km away, where the lake shared a border and where the port town of Kalemie could tell as many tales of derring-do and boys' own adventures as could Kigoma. After all, Kigoma is only a few miles up the lake from Ujiji, one of colonialism's most iconic encounters - where David Livingstone was found by Henry Morton Stanley and was greeted with "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" It is marked by a papier-maché sculpture of both men, and is a must-see for every backpacker and expat on the trail of the "real Africa".

The book tells the tale of the Price family's decline into disaster and tragedy over the course of a year or so, after the bullying insecure patriarch Nathan takes them under extreme duress to the "Heart of Darkness"; the Congo in 1959 - 60, just before independence and the subsequent conflict when Katanga Province attempted to secede to protect its mineral wealth and stay under rule of the former colonial power, Belgium, while the US and Western powers installed Mobutu as their puppet after the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba was tortured and killed, having been reviled as a Communist Marxist - part of the Red Terror of the Cold War era.

You know you're in for a treat when you read of the Betty Crocker cake mix taken by the family, and of the layers of clothing and household implements they wore to compensate for the weight restrictions on the airlines. The diversity of the four girls is remarkable for its reality - in any family there are bound to be such extreme personalities. The oldest, Rachel, is a stereotypical airhead blonde. Adah never speaks and has a physical disability, but she and her twin Leah are geniuses intellectually, and her palindromic brain keeps the reader challenged to track her mirror phrases. Ruth-May is the baby at five, and her innocent voice is one of the joys of the story as she reflects the racial prejudice of the segregationist Deep South. The story is told by the girls and their mother, Orleanna, who is downtrodden as her hopes for a happy life with her dour preacher husband fade before her eyes, and we never hear Nathan's voice telling his story. He is a deeply damaged personality, probably suffering from what would now be PTSD, as he had survived the March on Bataan in the Philippines in WWII - one of the few, and is wracked with survivor's guilt, which he channels through God and his unfortunate family by imposing his iron will and the Bible on them. The downward spiral is predictable and inevitable and it is both thrilling and chilling to see how the whole family disintegrates in the face of Nathan's stubbornness - so much so that they are even abandoned by the parent mission back home.

Kingsolver has a great facility for getting inside the broad sweep of this book's characters - the empathy for the Congolese villagers and their culture is outstanding and not patronising or condescending in a post-colonial-guilt fashion. The character of Anatole as a passionate advocate of human rights in an inherently corrupt society, is credible in the context of similar African activists like Nyerere in neighbouring Tanzania - a poor country but not one that succumbed to the corruption of the Congo under Mobutu. Kingsolver doesn't shy from criticising her country's involvement in the whole debacle of the Congo, nor does Belgium escape, as it was their decision not to educate the Congolese leaders of the future that left the vacuum filled by Mobutu and his henchmen.

It's impossible to summarise a work of such breadth and depth in a simple online review - suffice to say it encompasses four decades, with most of the action in the first year or two, until inevitable tragedy befalls the family leading to them going their separate ways. The description of their lives in the rainforest is vivid, and the hilarity of their naiveté is reflected in the narrators' different perspectives on their lot. Rachel struggles to maintain normality and have her hair and clothing pristine, an impossible task in such a hostile environment. The twins adapt remarkably and befriend the local kids, as does Ruth-May who plays group games with the kids and has a pied-piper ability to be a leader, despite her youth.

I loved this book on first reading and it was great to revisit it as I took away a lot more of the history of the Congo as it became Zaire and returned to its Congo name in later years. I read a lot of books on the area in the intervening decade, one of the best being Tim Butcher's Blood River which juxtaposes brilliantly with Kingsolver's book and I would highly recommend to anyone with more than a passing interest in Africa. Both books highlight the beauty and resilience of the people, and the post-colonial legacy is worth remembering as Ireland has just commemorated the Niemba Massacre, when nine Irish UN peacekeepers were killed, an event that struck a deep chord in the Irish psyche as it was controversial for decades; the dead were seen as heroes and those who survived were treated as pariahs who have only recently been vindicated.

There's everything here - the cultural clashes between the missionary and the village witch doctor and tribal chiefs, the strong women who faced adversity and death on an almost daily basis and with stoicism bordering on fatalism. The grinding poverty and lack of materialism is in stark contrast to the material wealth of the West. There's no doubting the writer's sympathies with socialism and democracy in the African context; she cites Angola as another of the West's failures with their overthrow of democratically elected Neto and dos Santos - all part of the Cold War - if Cuba was sending in medics and teachers to prop up the Angolan regime it had to be opposed and suppressed by whatever means possible - and that Leah and her family ended up in Angola is reflective of their values. The family are followed to the present and their voices lose none of their power and personality as they grow up to adulthood. I don't want to spoil the story by disclosing denouements - particularly the main tragedy - but I do hope that you read it as something that may stay with you long after you close the final page.

It will change the perception of Africa as a downtrodden entity and even though there have been and are despotic regimes throughout they can often be traced back to the colonial experience of divide and conquer (where one tribe was favoured over another by the ruling power - as in Belgian-run Rwanda and Burundi with genocidal consequences - a story best told by the many authors who wrote extensively and authoritatively after the 1994 genocide -These are among the best and I can vouch for them having read them all. If you're interested in Africa - contemporary and colonial - then get an excellent foundation African book is The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. It gives the colonial background for all the woes that have beset Africa in the 20th Century and beyond. A large part of my heart is in Africa, the birthplace of two of our four children, so I refuse to lose heart over the bad news - after all, Ireland or Europe criticising Africa for its problems would be a bit ironic, given our recent history.

So it's back to finishing off The Lacuna - her new book, which I set aside for the book club. It's another great read - about Mexico in the revolutionary years with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as the focus around which the story revolves, somewhat akin to setting the Poisonwood Bible in the midst of the Congo conflict.


Currently, the other Bloggers' Book Club Members are:

  1. Susan @ Joyous Flowers
  2. Cathy @ Rumble Strips
  3. Marie @ Diary of a Country Wife
  4. Lorna @Garrendenny Lane Interiors
  5. Val @ Magnum Lady
  6. Jen @ Smurfette Jen
  7. Jenny @ Stitchcraft Jen
  8. Kirsty @ The Road Less Travelled
  9. Steph @ The Biopsy Report
  10. Susan @ Queen of Pots
  11. Winifred @ I'm Trying, Honestly
  12. Ann @ Inkpots n'Quills
  13. Una @ Just Una's Blog
  14. Paysan @kickoutthejams

Some have posted reviews, others will read but not post, and some will just read the posts! In any case, just visit them and leave a comment if you like, we bloggers always enjoy feedback and most will respond enthusiastically to any comments.


Anonymous said...

I was interested to see what your review would be because you'd been in similar situations. I'm only half through the book and I'm hoping to finish it up loving the book. I, too, have know Baptist missionaries but of a different type -- the ones I've known researched the area and immersed themselves into their service/the culture even through they were living at poverty level themselves. For that reason, the family in the book angered me. I thought they showed the worst of Americans by "smuggling" the items under their clothes and by thinking their way of living was better than the Congolese. I'm hoping that the rest of the book will redeem the family.

Jeanne Henriques said...

Great post Catherine..Poisonwood Bible was a big hit in our book group. I heard many say that it changed their lives. I have been a fan of hers ever since and have Lacuna in my book pile. I am re-reading Jane Eyre at the moment. I forgot what a page turner it has been 30 years since I last read it.
I am taking advantage of the PENGUIN BOOKS collection at the moment. So many great reads...

Best wishes for a wonderful week!

Jeanne :)

Lorna said...

Fantastic review Catherine and all the best for you having lived in Africa. Thank you for the suggestions too re other books to read on Africa, having visited Zimbabwe in 1983 I have always been interested in the continent's history.
I see I confused caterpillars with grasshoppers in my review! Interesting and reassuring to hear that they taste good!!
I think the rest of us concentrated on Nathan's cruelty and indeed, unsuitability for being a Baptist minister but as you point out, Kingsolver did mention his war experiences and as you say, he probably was struggling with survivors guilt and much more.
Great review Catherine, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Lily said...

Catherine, I too was looking forward to reading your review, knowing your connections with Africa and you certainly didn't disappoint. Great insightful review which like the book, one has to read and then re-read to take it all in :)

Will be interested in what you think of The Lacuna. I'm making slow progress with it at the moment a lot going on and reading is suffering!

Sheila said...

Catherine, Thanks for visiting my blog. Looking forward to reading your blog. There seems to be so little time in the summer yet it should be exactly the opposite!

SusanC said...

Fantastic review Catherine!

Ann said...

Great review Catherine. Sorry it took so long to get here. Your blog along with three others won't load on my home computer. Had to make a trip into the library to check it out.

I loved this book too. It was a great read. Slow but great.