The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a fascinating novel set in the Belgian Congo around 1960. The family relating the story are the wife and children of an American Baptist missionary — a stern, authoritarian old-world missionary. His beliefs are prejudiced against anything that is not part of his own culture. He has an unshakeable belief in the superiority of his culture, ethnic race, religion, beliefs, and nation. Although this is understandable, it leads him to believe the culture, beliefs, religion, and ethics of those around him are worthless rubbish to be eradicated and replace with Christianity — as if this was the one true religion, as if there were no schisms, no dissent, no dogma, no arguments about Christianity.
These primitive people, he believes, should welcome him and his enlightenment with open arms. And yet, bit by bit his wife and children abandon his teachings, rebel against his punishments, his dogmatic beliefs, his authority invested in him by God.
He is big on judgments, punishments, and assigning blame. Jesus is his world, evangelism is his mission. As for his family, they rate little apart from what they can do to promote his religious conversions. “His” because it is his interpretation of the scripture, and social conventions.
The father is the only character who does not narrate any of the story. We see him as others see him, but not his own viewpoint. As the story moves on he gradually disappears, and it becomes the story of the mother and children, not living as missionaries, but as people struggling with their environment, society, and personal beliefs.
The children, four girls, each distinctly different, tell the story in multiple first person. None of the girls, or their mother are the least bit happy about their stint to bring enlightenment and Christianity to this “primitive Tribe of Ham.” The family struggle with the climate, the lack of conveniences, food, insects, animals, and local customs of those they are trying to help.
Each child gives their own vision and interpretation of the events that befall them, or more accurately, overwhelm them. Their mother comes to despise the whole project. She gradually distances herself from her evangelical husband, who is convinced he is doing God’s work, but to everyone else, he is losing his mind, until the point comes where they all separate.
The story continues as they go their own ways, now adults, they each settle in different countries, different conditions, different lives, largely estranged from each other. When they hold a reunion, it is a failure. Their father is still roaming obscure parts of Africa, no longer of sound mind, preaching to the lilies of the field. Their mother returns to America, tending her flower garden, trying not to think about the events of the past.
The “voices” of the girls are wonderful, each with their own brand of cynicism, irony, and idiosyncrasies; they are full of little amusing ways of looking at what they are experiencing. Along with their story, is the story of the Belgian Congo, eventually they see it become independent, only to watch the country descend into financial debt, and thus a captive of more wealthy nations who wish to continue their hegemony over a corrupt government.
It is an unusual story, not just because it is about Africa and the people of the Congo, but because it encompasses the misguided, arrogant missionaries who think that they are the only repository of truth and enlightenment. It is a really wonderful novel, that will last as a great novel for the next hundred years. It is 116 years since the publication of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, still widely read today. The two novels are not comparable, the only thing in common is the Congo, but for my money Poisonwood, is a far more interesting and worthy novel.
“The deluge finally stopped just before sunset. The world looked stepped on and drenched, but my sisters ran out squealing like the first free pigs off the ark, eager to see what the flood had left us.”
‘God works, as is very well known, in mysterious ways. There is just nothing you can name that He won’t do, now and then. Oh, He will send down so much rain that all his little people are drinking from one another’s sewers and dying of the kakakaka. Then he will organize a drought to scorch out the yam and manioc fields, so whoever did not die of fever will double over from hunger. What next, you might ask? Why, a mystery, that’s what!”
Review: Marcus Clark