Dhani Schneider, April 30, 2009
The Poisonwood Bible, like its religious counterpart, contains a Genesis and an Exodus. The novel teaches lessons, includes serpents and temptations, and involves baptisms. However, the comparisons between the Belgian Congo in the 1960s and the stories of Jesus and his disciples are few and far between. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel casts a white, Southern family of six as her lead players. She takes a Baptist minister, his suffering wife, and their four diverse daughters out of Georgia and plunks them in nearly primitive Kilanga, a Congolese village. The novel appeals most to women, who can relate most closely to the intense familial relationships, especially those between mother and daughter. The book manages to weave rich culture with intriguing stories. The Congo is a world away- so far and unfamiliar, in fact, that the Kikongo word bängala means “most precious” as well as “poisonwood”.
The novel begins in the 1950s and is undated towards the end. Most of the action takes place in the Congo and the surrounding area. The story ties in with the Congo Crisis (1960-1965), in which the Republic of Congo was liberated from Belgium. Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister by the newly free Congolese, but was then assassinated and replaced with the Communist Joseph Mobutu. Though not entirely central to the plot, understanding the revolution and its members is key in analyzing the motives of many of the characters and the changes that occur during the Price’s time in Africa. The author, Barbara Kingsolver, has lived in Africa and writes from her experiences.
Though the culture and history are rich on their own, Kingsolver enhances the story through her deep, captivating characters. The leader of the Prices, Reverend Nathan Price, is the only family member that fails to narrate a chapter. He “believed one thing above all else: that the Lord notices righteousness, and rewards it…he would accept no other possibility” (200). Nathan is described as incredibly stubborn and selfish; his daughter Leah recalls him loading his wife and daughters with dozens of pounds of objects, while he carried “the Word of God- which fortunately weighs nothing at all” (19). The former ruler of the Prices, Nathan eventually loses the respect of his family, and eventually, his family itself.
The carrier of Nathan’s burden was truly his wise, profound wife, Orleanna. Though she narrates only five short chapters of the book, her words set the tone and give explanations and rationale for the actions undertaken by her family. At the end of the novel, she sums up her life by saying that “as long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat til I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop” (382). While in the Congo, her daughters believe that she is merely indifferent towards them and is just another source of commands and oppression. However, after their African adventure, the girls realize that their mother is the strongest woman among them.
It is this uncommon union between selfishness and selflessness that bring four very different daughters. The oldest, Rachel, is really the most immature. She concerns herself with typical adolescent interests, regardless of the fact that she is oceans away from Georgia. Her passages are filled with humor and lightness, such as her confusion between Amnesty International and “Damnesty” International. Throughout the entire endeavor, Rachel keeps this attitude; her own sister remarks that “if Rachel ever gets back to Bethlehem [Georgia] for a high school reunion she will win the prize for ‘Changed the Least’” (494). Rachel’s indifferent attitude is contrasted in Leah, the most active and outgoing Price sister. Leah embraces the Congo, trying their customs and meeting their people. She is awestruck to find that she can “carry [her] own parcel like any woman here…and keep it there as long as
I had one hand on it!” (390). Leah’s voice is strong and confident, while her less fortunate twin Adah
suffers in silence. Disfigured at birth, Adah’s words are as crooked as her walk; elaborates on her own
name as “only Adah or, to my sisters sometimes, the drear monosyllabic Ade, lemonade, Band-Aid, frayed blockade, switchblade renegade, call a spade a spade” (57). Her passages are incredibly interesting to read because of the hidden palindromes and wordplay. Young Ruth May is still impressionable- her thoughts of the world are fairly simple and carefree. She writes that “sometimes you just want to lay down and look at the whole world sideways” (214). In this way, her words are
seemingly simple but carry a much heavier meaning.
The Price family is supplemented with other characters, mostly villagers, political figures, and a handful of others. Notable among them are Eeben Axelroot, the freewheeling pilot; Anatole, the scarred village schoolteacher; and Tata Ndu, the chief of Kilanga. The sustenance of the novel is basic day to day activities. However, these occurrences are less than ordinary- the family endures a swarm of flesh-eating ants, an ancient-style hunt, and an escape from Africa that pushes them to different directions. However, the real depth of the novel comes from what they learn, whether it be from each other or their very unfamiliar surroundings.
Kingsolver accomplishes this through wild stories with an underlying root. For example, the story about the wave of ants is told with graphic imagery and the shocking recognition of nature’s danger. However, the lesson is learned by Rachel, who remembers that sometimes you just need to “stick out your elbows, and hold yourself up” (517). Though the situation is rare, the lesson is real. This occurs in nearly every chapter, with each sister learning things about herself, the people around her, and the challenges and beauty that life forces upon its participants. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver emphasizes the fact that change brings realization.
Another technique that Kingsolver utilizes is the inclusion of the Kikingo language, which is spoken in the Congo and the surrounding area. In this language, single words have multiple meanings, depending on how they are said, such as bängala meaning “most precious”, “most insufferable”, and “poisonwood.” The language was hard to grasp at first, but easier once related. Leah describes the relationships between words, noting, "we worried over nzolo--it means "dearly beloved"; or a white grub used for fish bait; or little potatoes. Nzole is the double-sized pagne that wraps around two people at once. Finally I see how these things are related. In a marriage ceremony, husband and wife stand tightly bound by their nzole and hold one another to be the most precious: nzolani. As precious as the first potatoes of the season, small and sweet like Georgia peanuts” (505). The inclusion of the language has a dual use: to entrench the culture and to prove that, just like words, actions and results can serve a second purpose.
In the end, the novel achieves its purpose: to tie an entire culture to a fictional story. The Poisonwood Bible shows the development of five women and their own paths to independence, while the Congo reaches its own. Some of their stories are morbidly tragic, others silly and carefree, and yet others intriguing and profound. Kingsolver achieves the goal set by the traditions of Africa: to give every one of her words a deeper meaning.