The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

American writer Barbara Kingsolver

On Friday, November 16, 2018 John Chau a 26 year old adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary walked onto the beach of the isolated North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Sea, east of the Bay of Bengal, southern Asia. He clutched a fish and a copy of the bible. He hollered at a group of Sentinelese natives, ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.’ The natives strung arrows in their bows and he panicked slightly and threw the fish to them. An arrow pierced his Bible. He frantically paddled in his kayak back to the boat and the fisherman he had paid to bring him to the island. He was fearful but mainly disappointed. ‘They didn’t accept me right away.’ He returned the next day with the fishing boat out of sight thinking it was the boat the natives feared. He kayaked back to the same beach and attempted again to make contact. He was killed and his body has never been recovered. His father believes his son was a victim of an extreme vision of Christianity. John Chau has been called a martyr, an innocent child, a dumb American, and a deluded idiot.

John Chau’s mistakes that led to his death were a result of cultural ignorance, arrogance, hubris, and misguided religious fervour; and these are also behind the motivation of Kingsolver’s character Nathan Price, around which her novel The Poisonwood Bible turns in ever-dangerous circles. He attempts the same contact and Christian conversion of the villagers of Kilanga in what was then, in 1959, the Belgian Congo, but unlike Chau, Price takes along his wife, Oleanna, and their four young daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

John Chau, according to his family, ‘“loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”. Nathan Price had a similar belief in God that was so profound that he was embarrassed because God must be watching him even while his four daughters were conceived.

The story contained in the Poisonwood Bible is told only by the Price women. Oleanna opens every section but it is the girls who alternately tell the story of their continuing life-threatening existence; the villagers they befriend, the events that buffet their lives and the poverty they are forced into.

Each daughter has her own distinctive voice; this is Kingsolver’s greatest strength. The language is rich and revealing, defining and luscious. Rachel, the eldest, 15 at the beginning of the novel is self-centered and obsessed with her looks, her prised possession, a mirror. Adah, a twin, has a passion for palindromes, and has a congenital defect: the right side of her body ‘drags’; I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune. However she is witty and intelligent, opinionated but envious of her twin, Leah, who is the most outspoken, a tom-boy who worries about her salvation, and blames herself for Adah’s affliction. Ruth May. the baby, is inquisitive and observant, and sees the world as a baby might: innocently.

Seen through these five facets, the world of the Price women is multi-dimensional, exotic, and full of adversity: the natives, the forest, the river, the wildlife, the ants, the rain, the drought, and their ultimate adversary, the man, husband and father, who governs their bodies and minds. There’s no room for the devil here, not with Nathan Price around.

But it is not all doom and despair, there is childhood play and truthfulness and light-hearted growing up, but their inner lives, told to us by each narrator, tells of an existence separate, but true, from the one they have to present to their father, their supposed protector.

The Poisonwood Bible, her fourth novel published in 1998, is Kingsolver’s best known work. It as an ambitious and most assured novel. Nathan Price is almost a god-figure, rarely present, but his shadow hovers over and dominates the lives and thoughts of his women and their actions. Just like his God, he is tyrannical.

Strange to say, when it came I felt as if I’d been waiting for it my whole married life. Waiting for that axe to fall so I could walk away with no forgiveness in my heart. Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at that tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds.

The family seems doomed as long as it stays together, and out of sheer necessity, the women, but not all of them, save their own lives by putting themselves in even more danger.

However, ultimately this is not a book about daughters living with the day-to-day dangers triggered by a deluded dumb-American father; it’s more about how the daughters survived their deluded dumb-American father – and their mother who was powerless to stop him. Children are resilient, they survive, damaged perhaps, but they survive as best they can:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.

The similarities between Kingsolver’s Nathan Price and Lucy Treloar’s Stanton Finch (Salt Creek, 2015) are pronounced: god-bothered men who put their loved-ones at great risk all for the sake of a belief system they learned, unchallenged, from their own parents.

I know many have read this book, but if you haven’t, do.

There are many free videos, short and long, on YouTube featuring Barbara Kingsolver talking about her work. Here is a short piece where she talks about the power of fiction.

You can buy the book, in various formats, here, along with her latest, Unsheltered (2018).

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