By Carolyn Williams
Barbara Kingsolver’s renowned novel “The Poisonwood Bible” is essentially risky. Though the book received critical acclaim, garnering New York Times bestseller status and becoming Editors’ Choice for the New York Times Book Review, it has received mixed popular reviews from the moment it hit stores in 1998. It continues to be somewhat controversial more than 10 years later.
The story follows the Price family for about 30 years, beginning with their move from small-town America to the Belgian Congo in 1959, a much-anticipated part of their father Nathan’s missionary work. Orleanna and her four daughters are the narrators, and each infuses her own personality and point of view into her narration, forcing the reader to carefully consider the speaker’s reliability.
Rachel, the oldest daughter, is shallow and vapid. Leah, next, is idealistic and eager to please. Adah, Leah’s twin, detaches herself from the rest of the world, hiding behind her crooked body. Ruth May, the baby, is the most courageous of all, with a contagious vivacity. Orleanna, their mother, narrates from the future, her narration interspersed with the girls’ stories. Her memories are heavy with guilt and regret for what has happened to her family.
Tensions mount in their Congolese village, and it becomes clear these small troubles are a microcosm of the changes in the Congo itself during its struggle for independence. Under the weight of these upheavals, the Price family is torn apart. Nathan’s religious fervor moves to such a level of fanaticism that he refuses to move his family back to America and vows to stay in the Congo until he believes God’s work there is done.
Some of the daughters remain in Africa for the rest of their lives, and others return to America, but all are irrevocably changed by their time in the village of Kilanga.
Much of the reason “The Poisonwood Bible” has come under fire is the depiction of Nathan Price. The Baptist minister is so fiercely dedicated to converting the village to Christianity that he alienates his entire congregation and jeopardizes and mistreats his wife and daughters. He seems to lose touch with reality completely. The religious title of the book, Nathan’s actions and several of the daughters’ subsequent losses of faith have caused some readers to label Kingsolver’s work as hateful and disgraceful.
In reality, demonizing Christians is not Kingsolver’s intent in “The Poisonwood Bible.” The book is about ignorance, and much of the ignorance Kingsolver highlights is that which the Prices bring with them into the Congolese jungle. The most poignant instance of the theme is demonstrated through Nathan’s ignorance of the nuances of the Lingala language spoken in Kilanga, and, more significantly, his ignorance of mankind in general. He continually mispronounces the word bangala, which he intends to mean beloved, but with his incorrect inflection, he is actually ending his services with the confusing, disconcerting statement “Jesus is Poisonwood Tree.”