Review: The Poisonwood Bible

November 9, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Poisonwood Bible

My Important Books list is full of well-written, thought-provoking books that are thoroughly fun to read. But The Poisonwood Bible is always the first one I have to recommend, because the things it has to say are so weighty and important. As much as I adore Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as much as Cryptonomicon very probably is my one and only true love favorite book ever, I have to concede that The Poisonwood Bible is the book that should be required reading for absolutely everyone. It’s about a family of Baptist missionaries in the Congo, and it’s like watching a crazy chemical reaction, the way the religious lifestyle they brought from Georgia hisses and steams and changes color when it comes into contact with Africa. One by one, Nathan Price’s wife and four daughters come to release (in one way or another) their old Christianity, while Nathan plows forward, unwarned and undeterred by the hints that this isn’t the way things are done here. It’s infuriating and inspiring, frightening and transcendent, to watch what happens to everyone.

Of course Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers; my favorite thing is how she can work in a dialect without stooping to phonetic spellings. She’s also good with figurative language and allegorical images, working in plenty without their being obtrusive. But mostly she’s just a fantastic writer; mostly the book just flows and flows, pouring out its rich language while the reader drinks it in. My major complaint after this reading is the voice of the character Adah, who has hemiplegia and chooses not to talk, and reads and thinks backwards and forwards. She does a lot of palindromes, and of straight-up backwards writing, but neither is really convincing. The palindromes always sound forced, and the backwards stuff just seems artificial—there’s not usually even any real beauty in the backwards-ness. Lo octon sisith. And to my shock, Kingsolver entirely neglects anagrams. That seems to me something that would have really added to the impression of Adah’s mind as crooked and strange and talented. As is, I find it instead a little forced-sounding. Maybe it’s just too far removed from Kingsolver’s way of thinking? It stands to reason that a storyteller functions best in straight lines that move forward even if they weave and bend and fray. Maybe she did have to force tricks that require you to circle and go back on your train of thought.

Other than that, no complaints. And there is so much to this story I’m going to have a hard time doing it justice. It’s about how you can never be sure you’re right; and even if you are, you can never be sure that that makes anyone else wrong. It’s about Africa, and how badly it’s been treated by the world, and both how much it’s changed and how impossible it is that it will ever change. It’s about God and where to find it. It’s about survivor’s guilt. It’s about one family’s entire world, and especially how its women were shaped by the man of the house and his religion and how that made them act throughout their entire lives. It’s an awfully big book, as you can see. It makes you feel you understand the world better after reading it. Can’t recommend it highly enough.


It was midway through September when Ruth May made her inroads. I came back from my spying foray one afternoon to find her playing “Mother May I?” with half the village’s children. […] I watched for a long while, astonished to see what Ruth May had accomplished behind my back. Every one of these children could execute giant steps, baby steps, scissors steps, and a few other absurd locomotions invented by Ruth May. She grudgingly let us join the game, and grudgingly we did. For several afternoons under the gathering clouds, all of us—including the generally above-it-all Rachel—played “Mother May I?” I tried to picture myself in a missionary role, gathering the little children unto me, as it was embarrassing to be playing this babyish game with children waist-high to me. But we were so tired of ourselves and each other by then the company was irresistible.

We soon lost interest, though, for there was no suspense at all: the Congolese children always passed us right by on their march to victory. In our efforts to eke the most mileage out of a scissors step or whatever, my sisters and I sometimes forgot to ask (or Adah to mouth) “Mother May I?” Whereas the other children never, ever forgot. For them, shouting “Ma-da-me-yi” was one rote step in a memorized chain of steps, not a courtesy to be used or dropped the way “yes, ma’am” and “thank you” are for us. The Congolese children’s understanding of the game didn’t even take courtesy or rudeness into account, if you think about it, any more than Methuselah [the parrot] did when he railed us with hell and damnation. This came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.


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