Treat Yourself to The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover (June/July 2001)

The Poisonwood Bible 
by Barbara Kingsolver

I don’t read novels as a rule. I don’t even read the titles of them on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Why? Because I am so literal-minded and so rational that I want my information straight. I don’t want someone to write about history and weave made-up characters into the plot. That, for me, makes that account of history suspect. Neither do I want to read 467 pages about fictional people just to get one crumb of an important message. I want my messages to be the straight dope; no frills.

Once in a while, however, I am persuaded to read a novel (maybe every ten years), and such was the case with The Poisonwood Bible. Recently my friend, John Blair, asked me if I had read it. Naturally I hadn’t; hadn’t even heard of it. But what he said intrigued me, and I picked it up in a quaint little bookstore in Boerne, while on a totally unrelated mission. No regrets!

There is a tree in Africa called poisonwood. Contact with it will produce a painful and unsightly rash which, if severe enough, can kill. Knowing this, the reader can safely assume thatThe Poisonwood Bible illustrates a similar effect of the bible on human beings (whatever the author might claim was, or was not, her intention).

The story of Poisonwood is that of a man of God, hot to trot to bring the word of God to ignorant Africans. Accompanying him on this mission are his reluctant wife and four daughters. The story of their experiences in the Belgian Congo, starting with their arrival in 1959, is told from the perspective of the wife and the four daughters. The minister says zap; he is too busy trying to bring the comfort of Jesus and His promised salvation to the natives.

Poisonwood is not only a visit into the minds of five different people, it is an adventure in Africa without having to go there, which I have never wanted to do (I have to say that my instincts were good!). It dishes up the gripping history of the Congo during the time it was freeing itself from Belgium, and reveals the despicable role that President Eisenhower and the United States played in that struggle. It made me hate Republican politicians even more than I thought I did–and that includes George Bush.

The whole book is packed with drama and excitement, laced, by turns, with the witty, poignant and stinging insights and reflections of the daughters and their mother.

When the Price family reaches the Congo, the eldest daughter, Rachel, is 15. Her siblings are early-adolescent twins, and the baby of the family is five. Poisonwood follows the family past their mission period and into their individual lives for some 30 years. Rachel is a total airhead with the airs of a princess/movie star, and a vocabulary that is, well, unusual and side-splittingly funny. One of the twins thinks and writes in palindromes. This is definitely a word-lover’s book, but that’s just one of the bonuses.

Treat yourself to The Poisonwood Bible. I guarantee you will love it. If you don’t, pick up something else along the lines of Mental Health, and How to Achieve it, or Yes, You Can Learn to Like Good Stuff!

Note: This is not a book review; it is my personal opinion of a book which I happen to think is the best novel ever written. Being so besotted with Poisonwood, I got hold of two of Kingsolver’s previous works: The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven. My recommendation is not to go there; she was just practicing for her masterpiece.

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer and activist who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation