The Common Good
March-April 1999

Ignorance and Grace

by Liane Ellison Norman | March-April 1999

Lessons from The Poisonwood Bible.

Barbara Kingsolver is a high-energy novelist, at once funny and serious. The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Pigs in Heaven all engage characters seriously with a real world beyond their own sensibilities and domestic affairs. Her spirited book of essays, High Tide in Tucson, combines the experience of parenting, her biological training, and observations about social policy. These essays presage but do not predict The Poisonwood Bible, a big, dark, comic novel in which an American family is both instance and agent of imperialism. In my judgment, Kingsolver here joins the ranks of such storytellers as George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dickens, for whom political power, resistance, and change are essential to plot, rather than mere scenery behind it.

Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary and a damaged survivor of war's carnage, takes his family to the Congo in 1959 to bring souls to Christ. The five females in his command tell the tale. The mother, Orleanna, reflects retrospectively. The daughters, ranging from 14 to 4—Rachael, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May—narrate their experience, each in her own distinctive voice. Teen-age Rachael is self-absorbed and hilariously given to malapropism. Leah, her father's acolyte, is eager to learn what is around her. Her physically handicapped twin, Adah, retreats into sardonic brooding, and little Ruth May struggles to understand, reaches out to make friends, and sticks her bad-tasting malaria pills on the wall behind her bed. From Mississippi and Georgia, the Prices bring with them not only what they imagine they will need—tools and garden seeds, pinking shears and Betty Crocker cake mixes—but habits of racial superiority. God has sent them to take up the White Man's Burden, to save the village of Kilanga and its people.

Nathan Price—"Our Father," as Adah calls him—labors under the conviction that it is "a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa." He will not—cannot—see any native worth in people who are part of a country that has been ruthlessly conquered and colonized by white men greedy for cobalt and diamonds. The vegetable seeds Nathan brings, which flourish in Georgia, do not bear fruit in Kilanga because the insects needed for pollination don't exist in the Congo. The Kilangans see his insistence on baptism as a way of feeding them to crocodiles in the baptismal river. Orleanna says, "We were supposed to have come prepared. But there is no preparing for vipers on the doorstep and drums in the forest, calling up an end to a century of affliction. By the time summer trailed off into the season of endless rains, it was clear there was going to be trouble."

THE PREDICTED trouble changes the internal structure of the family and its deepening and increasingly disruptive relationship to the village. While the children react to and learn from Kilanga in their own ways, the father stiffens in ignorance and obduracy. "Tata Jesus is BSngala," he proclaims. He means to say that Jesus is eternal life, but his contempt for and ignorance of the language are such that he actually says "Jesus is poisonwood," the sap of which acts like poison ivy. "Believe this," said Adah at the novel's end, "the mistakes are part of the story. I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible."

Orleanna, caught between an increasingly crazed and tyrannical husband, the grueling hardships of housekeeping and cooking, and her children's needs, moves steadily—as does the Congo—toward rebellion. The Belgians are forced to leave. Patrice Lumumba is elected. The Price girls overhear bits of an incomprehensible plot by a free-lance CIA operative to remove and murder Lumumba. The U.S.-sponsored Mobutu further turns his country upside-down. The fallout ruptures the village and the Price family.

Kingsolver follows the aftermath of these heartbreaking events in the separate lives of Orleanna and her daughters as far as the late '80s. Each delivers a concluding sermon. This is a risky gambit for a novelist, to allow characters to turn directly to the reader and say, "Here is what I have learned. This is what it means." Some readers will object; I do not. Kingsolver has written so big, so important, and so engrossing a novel that she earns the right to a quartet, each voice of which draws a different moral. One voice is missing, but you must read the novel to find out which one.

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN is a writer living in Pennsylvania.

The Poisonwood Bible. Barbara Kingsolver. HarperFlamingo, 1998.

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