For Rachael’s birthday this year, she was given a copy of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is a historical novel set primarily in the Congo (what’s currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1960 when the country was in the process of establishing independence from Belgium. The story follows the Prices, a family from Bethlehem, Georgia who come to the Congo so their patriarch Nathan can work as a Christian missionary to the small village of Kilanga.
Rachael read the book over a long weekend and then told me I should read it as well. I’m not given over to binge reading novels, so I took more than a weekend to read it (about three months). It was good; I liked it.
For all the books I read when I was in undergrad, I regret that I never really got much exposure to postcolonial literature. Being an English major typically means that you only ever get to read stuff from the mostly white, mostly male canon that suffers entirely from an overwhelming Eurocentrism. As we used to say back then, if you wanted multiculturalism, you needed to go to the Comparative Literature department; I wasn’t even aware there were classes to be taken on different critical theories within the English department (to be fair, my literary interests ran towards English Renaissance and American Modernism, so it never occurred to me to look for any theory classes). Of course, postcolonial theory isn’t strictly tied to multiculturalism. It’s more a theoretical lens that examines the ways that the white supremacy of European colonization in the last four hundred or so years has impacted expressions of native cultures socially and economically in other parts of the world.
With The Poisonwood Bible, the postcolonial lens gets turned on American white evangelical Christianity, as Nathan Price sets out to “convert Africa for Jesus” with an attitude that approaches the task more as a form of conquest than as a method of service. Repeatedly, we get to see Nathan fail as a missionary through a combination of blind overconfidence and refusal to acknowledge how the local culture is better adapted to survival in the Congo. Nathan attempts to do things the way someone from rural Georgia would do them, like planting his garden flat instead of on mounds to protect the seeds from washing away in the region’s flash rainstorms, or insisting that converts must get baptized in the river irrespective of the fact that it’s infested with crocodiles. Complicating the colonialist attitude is Nathan’s own personal mixture of toxic masculinity; he’s a veteran of World War II who was the sole survivor of his unit on the Bataan Death March, and the combination of survivor’s guilt and shame of failure lead him to be dangerously zealous in his pursuits as an evangelist.
Of course, while Nathan is certainly a major character (it’s hard not to feel his presence through the first two thirds of the book), he’s not the focus of this story. You could very much make a case that Nathan is too set in his ways at the book’s outset to present any real kind of growth or understanding, and that doesn’t make for a particularly interesting protagonist. Instead of following Nathan, the narrative is split among the women of the Price family, with Orleanna the mother introducing most of the major sections of the novel, and the four sisters taking turns narrating events as they happen over the course of 1960 and into the decades that follow. Each sister has a different perspective on life in the Congo, and they each develop in sharply different ways because of it. The eldest, Rachel, is a shallow girl who pines for the comforts of Western civilization and utterly fails to adapt in any way that isn’t an extension of the colonial attitudes that Kingsolver is criticizing. Leah, the first of twins, is incredibly earnest and begins as something of a daddy’s girl (she idolizes Nathan for a long time before recognizing his arrogance, foolishness, and abusive nature for what they are); she grows into a staunch anti-colonialist. Adah, the second twin, leads a rich inner life because a birth defect has left her hemiplegic on her left side; she’s the most cynical of the Prices, and she observes the story’s events from a distance. Ruth May, the youngest at only five, approaches life in the Congo with a level of innocence that her elder sisters can’t maintain; with the least formal Western education, she adapts the quickest to Kilanga village.
What’s inescapable for the entire family is the fact of their whiteness in a black society. Each character approaches this markedness in different ways (Nathan flatly fails to comprehend the local wisdom as superior to what he’s learned at home, Rachel retreats further into her whiteness as an active participant in colonialism, and Leah constantly struggles against it as she tries to assimilate into the culture), but it becomes an aspect of their identity that they can’t ignore the way they might back in rural Georgia in the 1950s. Kingsolver’s novel struggles hard to take white identity and shift it into a place where it can’t assume default status.
The Poisonwood Bible isn’t a book I would have picked up under normal circumstances (I read few enough books as it is); it’s pure literary fiction that deals with heavy issues head on. Even so, it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve read in the last year; if you want to pick up something with some heft to it, you could do a lot worse than this.