THE POISONWOOD BIBLE
by Maurice A. Williams
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I think many people, in an effort to be tolerant, accept and praise opinions that are destructive to opinions they dearly cherish. Examples are books, written as fiction, or not really fiction but passed off as fiction, that express private opinions contradictory to positions held by the people who buy and praise these books. One such example is “The Poisonwood Bible,” written by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a best seller, receiving rave reviews by The Media, and praised by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show. Here is my take on it.
Barbara Kingsolver, a truly gifted writer, shows considerable skill in "The Poisonwood Bible." Her skill with words makes the book easy to read. Her vivid imagery makes, not only the characters, but also the locale, come alive. Her point-of-view through the eyes of a snake at the beginning and end of the book make you imagine that it is you who is witnessing the events. A skilled writer doesn't merely tell a story; there are several layers to a skillfully crafted novel. There's the story itself, in this case, a purely fictional story. There's the setting for the story, in this case the Congo, the real Congo of the 1960's. And there's the overall view of the author, the rationale of why the author wrote the novel. Kingsolver is so skilled in writing that these layers are easily discerned in her book. Having given her credit for her skill, I am now going to explain my problems with this book.
The story of Nathan and Orleanna Price and their four daughters is, as Kingsolver states in her "author's note," "a work of fiction." The main characters do not exist. They are a product of Kingsolver's imagination. One wonders why Kingsolver portrays Nathan Price, an imaginary Baptist preacher, as such a total failure. He is a failure as a husband, a failure as a father, and a failure as a missionary. Nathan accomplishes nothing of value.
Since Nathan is a fictional character created by Kingsolver, he is one hundred percent what Kingsolver wants him to be and nothing other than Kingsolver wants him to be. That's all right. A novelist is entitled to create fiction. One wonders, though, why Kingsolver didn't portray Price after someone more successful as a missionary, like Dr. Livingston, for example, or Rev. Billy Graham. She must have a reason to characterize Price as she did.
The historical setting of her novel, the Congo of the 1960's, is, as Kingsolver said in her author's note, real. Kingsolver cites many historical events that occurred at that place and time and has her characters draw conclusions from them. She presents a harsh picture of American involvement in the political affairs of the Congo, of the West's exploitation of the Congo, and the nonrelevance of Christianity for the Congolese people. Here, in the Congo of the 1960's, she is dealing with the real world, not with a fictional world of her own creation.
To be fair with Kingsolver, no one can extract in a few thousand words, an accurate and objective appraisal of what happened at that time. The author's personal understanding will always slant the appraisal. But Kingsolver, I think, has emphasized some facts and omitted other facts. Whatever her reasons, she has presented a slanted view that, joined with her characterization of Nathan Price, makes it easy to guess her rationale in writing the book.
She mentions how the West, particularly the United States, intervened when the Congo became independent in 1960, when Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister. On page 161, one of her characters sees newspaper headlines "Soviet plan moves forward in Congo" and (The newspaper) "said Khrushchev wanted to take over the Belgian Congo . . ." On page 308, one of her characters hears that Eisenhower orders Lumumba's death. On page 319, Dulles (in Aug., 1960), sent a telegram ". . . to replace the Congolese government at earliest convenience . . ."
Kingsolver's readers would wonder why was the United States so involved in the internal affairs of the Congo. Kingsolver, on page 233 has one of her characters state that when Lumumba asked Khrushchev to come to the Congo's aid, Lumumba was bluffing." Kingsolver never mentions that in 1959, Khrushchev brought Castro's Cuba into the Soviet circle. We all should remember the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960's because it almost led to nuclear war. I do not condone what the United States did in the Congo, but knowing about Cuba, I can realize the seriousness of Lumumba's bluff.
Lumumba's personal friend, Thomas Kanza, wrote "The Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba: Conflict in the Congo" (ISBN: 0-8161-9015-1). In it, he quotes, verbatim, Lumumba's request to Khrushchev (p. 207) and states (on p. 225) that "Lumumba was involved in a dangerous, perhaps mortal, struggle; for though the West wanted to save the Congo, it had had enough of him" (of Lumumba). Kingsolver remarks that the Congo was exploited for gold, diamonds, copper, ivory, and slaves.
She didn't mention uranium. Kanza (p. 46) mentions uranium. Uranium, being of strategic importance in the cold war, still doesn't excuse the West, but mention of it would make the West's panic more understandable. On page 232, Kingsolver reveals that "People are angry at the Europeans. They are even hurting women and little children." She then criticizes Belgium for sending troops back into the Congo. Kanza (p. 226) quotes from an UN speech claiming "white women raped before their children's eyes, little white girls raped."
In another book I read that this violence was directed against the families of white officers in the Congolese army. Lumumba did not condone it, but was unable to stop it. Two website articles about Mobutu Sese Seko state that Belgium sent troops to protect its citizens from the violence. Kingsolver's understatement of the degree of violence makes her readers think Belgium had other motives for sending troops. Her omission of pertinent details slants her readers toward her main theme, which I will describe below.
Kingsolver patterns her book after Scripture. The book is divided into seven main divisions, entitled "Genesis," "Revelation," "The Judges," "Bel and the Serpents," "Song of Three Children," and "The Eyes in the Trees." The eyes in the trees are the eyes of the mamba snake, presented as though they are our eyes. The eyes also make one think of the serpent in the tree in the Garden of Eden.
In spite of the Scriptural titles and the fact that Nathan Price is a Christian missionary, Kingsolver is very critical of Christianity. On page 522, she makes the blanket statement that "Priests held mass baptisms on the shore and marched their converts onto ships bound for sugar plantations in Brazil, slaves to the higher god of commodity agriculture." On page 201, she writes "Poor Congo, beautiful bride of men who took her jewels and promised her the kingdom."
These obvious prejudicial statements coupled with the ineptitude of Nathan Price, the Baptist missionary, set against the backdrop of partially described history serves to make the point that the white man's mistreatment of blacks is more that racial: it is white men poisoned with Christian ideology that inspired them to do what they do in nonwhite countries. She sums it up on page 490 where she has Leah say "Jesus is poisonwood. Here's to the minister of poisonwood, and here's to his five wives." Leah's father is the minister. The Congolese referred to his wife and four daughters as his five wives.
The book gets its name from a tree in the Congo similar to poison ivy but more noxious. Near the end of the book, Kingsolver states her main view of life (p. 528): "This is the story I believe in: when God was a child, the Rift Valley cradled a caldron of bare necessities, and out of it walked the first humans, upright on two legs . . . They made the Voodoo, the Earth's oldest religion . . ."
I do not accept any of this. God was never a child. God is unchanging. Human beings did not originate out of a cauldron of bare necessities in the Rift Valley. God created the first humans. Voodoo is not the Earth's oldest religion. The relationship the first humans had with God is the world's oldest religion.
I'm not surprised that so many people applaud Kingsolver's book. It is very well written, but when you penetrate through the sugar coating, you discover that it also contains poison. It advocates opinions that simply are not true.
Maurice A. Williams
Author of “Revelation and The Fall of Judea”
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Wow, how I would love to have you critique my work. I am by no means a professional writer, so take what I say with a grain of salt. As I read through this piece, I was able to gain insight on the author of the novel it seemed you were critiquing. Something I never thought a whole lot about while reading. It made me want to read her book, but to approach it with an open eye. Thanks for this excellent offering. Sandi