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A complex novel about faith, family and dysfunction

By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperFlamingo, 543 pages, $26


It is hard not to feel partial to one or another of the narrators of this story -- Barbara Kingsolver uses a total of five to describe a Baptist family’s mission trip to the Congo in 1959.

The technique of multiple narrators has a rich history in American literature -- Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes to mind -- but unlike Faulkner’s work, in which each of four characters has one section to recount events of three particular days, Kingsolver intersperses chapters from each of the five to tell their story of five years in the Congo and the aftermath.

Kingsolver’s Price family is, however, just as dysfunctional as Faulkner’s Compsons and just as dominated by a tyrannical patriarch.

For reasons that only later become clear, the Reverend Price insists on moving his family of wife and four daughters to the village of Kikanga in the Congo against the Baptist mission league’s advice. With virtually no support system, they go into a place on the verge of political breakdown. The family, now minus one child, disintegrates with the country.

Mrs. Price, Orleanna, has the fewest chapters, albeit the most poignant and haunting -- some apologetic, all reflective on what has gone down. It is left to the daughters, teen-queen Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and the youngster, Ruth May, to tell the tale.

Narcissistic Rachel, whose prize possession is her mirror, takes everything as a personal affront. Leah’s is the voice of wisdom, common sense and direction. If the family had a magnetic center it would be Leah. She courts her father’s favor above the rest but turns out to be the most rebellious. Little Ruth May narrates from the narrowest perspective, but she is not without insight.

My favorite is Adah. Besides being crippled (she drags one leg due to a birth defect), Adah doesn’t speak. She can, but she doesn’t.

Adah is the cynic, the wry humorist, the caustic commentator who is as disdaining of her father as her twin is fawning. She who doesn’t use words is most fascinated by them, word play, puns and palindromes. In fact, she prefers to think of herself as “Ada” for its palindrome possibilities. Her palindrome for her father is the “amen enema.”

There is so much to say about this book. There are the rich literary allusions Kingsolver employs, not the least of which is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (The required summer reading for my senior advanced placement class next year is going to include The Poisonwood Bible and Heart of Darkness). But the title deserves exploration because it leads us to the thematic center of the book.

The first mention of the poisonwood comes up in connection with the garden planted in the Congo by Nathan Price, which he expects to duplicate the kind of gardens he had cultivated in Georgia, thus transforming African horticultural practices. It is Nathan, however, who is “transformed,” despite repeated warnings, by exposing his bare skin to the benign looking plant that causes severe rash and itching, known as the bängala -- the poisonwood.

Price never bothered to learn the language of the people to whom he was preaching the gospel. He relied on a translator. But on those occasions when he distrusted the translator or felt moved to speak directly to his flock he would end his sermons with, “Tata Jesus is bängala.”

Now, bangala without the umlaut is something precious. Bängala, with it, is, of course, poisonwood. “Jesus is poisonwood!” he would shout to the sky.

Here’s Adah on her father:

“Our father has a bone to pick with the world, and oh, he picks it like a sore. Picks it with the Word. His punishment is the Word, and his deficiencies are failures of words -- as when he grows impatient with translation and strikes out precariously on his own ... in his wildly half-baked Kikongo. It is a dangerous thing.”

The Reverend Price was a dangerous man, not only with the language, his garden, the poisonwood and “his people,” but with his wife and daughters, often using a heavy hand to work his will. His brand of missionary work was, first of all, self-serving and used Christianity as a whip to bend or break African culture to Western beliefs.

His antithesis in the mission field was his predecessor in Kikanga, a “spoiled priest” figure who was as beloved among the Congolese as Price was disdained. Fowles had, in a sense, gone native. He married and now ministers from his houseboat up and down the river to the humanitarian needs of the people, without personal agenda.

When the insurrection erupted and whites were ordered out of the country, Fowles came at personal risk to evacuate the Prices, only to have the offer refused. It was thus left to each family member ultimately to find her own way out. “Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us -- these are the four ways to exodus for now,” mused Adah.

In the seven major sections of the book, each biblically named, Kingsolver tells two stories. The first, of course, deals with the family and their experiences. Leah promised that “when I am a grown-up American with a backyard garden of my own, I shall tell all the world the lessons I learned in Africa.” They all do. Beyond that, Kingsolver, as do the Prices, becomes preoccupied with the deteriorating political situation, and as a sub-text, is intent on exposing the culpability of the United States in destabilizing the region. She lived in the Congo with her family in the early 1960s. In an article in the New Times Magazine she is quoted as saying:

“If I were to write a nonfiction book about the brief blossoming and destruction of the independence of the Congo, and what the CIA had to do with it, then probably all 85 people who are interested in the subject would read it. Instead I can write a novel that’s ostensibly about family and culture and an exotic locale. And it’s entertaining, I hope.”

It is!

Ultimately, she brings the Price women into the present along with the still deteriorating situation on the African continent. Here, still self-centered, but now pragmatic Rachel has one of her rare insights. “You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style without expecting the jungle to change you right back.” It is at the point -- when the novel turns political and the remaining Price women are coping with those changes -- that things get a bit belabored. But don’t let this quibbling dissuade you from reading this marvelous book, her best to date, not only in depth of story and character development but richness of style and language.

To return to theme: Adah, in her adulthood, besides being a specialist in infectious diseases, has become a collector of books famous for their misprints. Among them are Bibles variously known as The Camel Bible, the Murderer’s Bible, the Bug Bible and so forth, all named for their egregious misprint.

“I can’t resist these precious gospels. They lead me to wonder what Bible my father wrote in Africa. We came in stamped with such errors we can never know which ones made a lasting impression. ... Believe this: the mistakes are part of the story. I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible.”

Despite the reverend and his poisonwood, the Price women, to some extent or other, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endured. The same cannot be said for the Congo.

Judith Bromberg, a regular reviewer for NCR, teaches high school literature and composition in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999