Review: The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver
HarperPerennial, New York, 1999

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — January 12, 2000 5:20 p.m.

What is it about the subject of twins that make them such a common subject for authors? Toni Morrison's recent novel centered around twins. Twins showed up in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Barbara Kingsolver's latest, The Poisonwood Bible, carries on this trend with a story of a Baptist missionary family in the Congo in the 1950's.

Perhaps it's because twins provide a good paradigm for society. Identical twins, indistinguishable genetically, nevertheless grow to become different, each furthering his/her uniqueness, yet always remaining in some ways identical to the other. Perhaps this provides too much of a temptation for an author to mirror social issues, to reflect a group of individuals which are living in an identical environment while exploring the implications of their differences.

The Poisonwood Bible, with two of its characters, Adah and Leah, being twins, itself exhibits some of the same properties that draw authors to that subject: it is in many ways two books bound together, somehow similar and more or less continuous, yet still disjointed. The first of these, the first half or so of the book, is a must-read. The second, what remains of the book, is a disappointment and a prolonged continuation of a story the point of which was made long before.

The first half of The Poisonwood Bible is excellent. It begins more or less with the family's journey to the Congo. It might first seem that Kingsolver's choice of twins as a literary device is a clichéd mistake. This is not the case. Kingsolver effectively uses the twins to communicate similarities and differences, though not effectively as others have. Kingsolver uses another device which works quite well for her: at each new chapter she switches viewpoint between the characters: the mother, Orleanna Price, and the four children, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

The father becomes the anti-hero of the story, a Satanic figure whose zeal to spread his understanding of the gospel destroys everyone around him. Nathan Price is not given a voice in the story; it's as if the women of the story are taking revenge for their not being allowed a voice in real life.

While Kingsolver's writing isn't overwhelmingly brilliant, it is dependably very good and at times wonderful. "The forest eats itself and lives forever," Orleanna notes as the book begins (5). The story examines frictions between nationalities, races, and genders, but also does a very good job of explaining the history of the Congo. Kingsolver's writing skills are particularly good at addressing each of these issues in poetic summaries of things the family learns.

Orleanna begins by contemplating the implications and reaches of history.

Consider, even, an Africa unconquered altogether. Imagine those first Portuguese adventurers approaching the shore, spying on the jungle's edge through their fitted brass lenses. Imagine that by some miracle of dread or reverence they lowered their spyglasses, turned, set their riggings, sailed on. Imagine all who came after doing the same. What would that Africa be now (7-8)?

Though the Portuguese changed Africa, Africa certainly affected the Prices in ways that would only become evident over many years. The epiphany begins in earnest as Orleanna tries to bake a cake for Rachel's 16th birthday using a box of cake mix she had faithfully brought along with the limited room they had on their journey. She discovers that the mix has turned solid. "'If I'd of had the foggiest idea,' she said very steadily, holding her pale, weeping eyes on me, 'just the foggiest idea. We brought all the wrong things'" (65).

Even Nathan, in all his shortcomings, at times seems to come close to allowing Africa to change his outlook. After a gardening experiment fails because of pollination problems, he states that, "you can't bring the bees. You might as well bring the whole world over here with you, and there's not enough room for it" (80).

Nathan Price never keeps his insights for long, however, and he quickly reverts to believing that only the things that he believes or is used to can be correct — no other options can even be considered. The supposedly corrupt Brother Fowles is the character in the story who displays much more wisdom: when Brother Fowles admits that his Christian preaching may not have made Tata Ndu have fewer wives, he explain that "...each of those wives has profited from the teachings of Jesus, I can tell you. Tata Ndu and I spent many afternoons with a calabash of palm wine between us, debating the merits of treating a wife kindly. In my six years here I saw the practice of wife beating fall into great disfavor. Secret little altars to Tata Jesus appeared in most every kitchen, as a result" (257-258). This excellent selection brings out how ironic it was for the any of the Price family to feel as if they needed to eradicate all the evils planted by Brother Fowles, when in fact he had brought about more substantial changes than they!

Kingsolver deals well with the social conditions and the history of the Congo, creating wonderful summaries:

In their locked room, these men had put their heads together and proclaimed Patrice Lumumba a danger to the safety of the world. The same Patrice Lumumba, mind you, who washed his face each morning from a dented tin bowl, relieved himself in a carefully chosen bush, and went out to seek the faces of his nation. Imagine if he could have heard those words — dangerous to the safety of the world! — from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life on earth. Would Lumumba have screamed like a cheetah? Or merely taken off his glasses, wiped them with a handkerchief, shaken his head, and smiled (319)?

While Kingsolver almost tries too hard to bring wit into the narrations of the disfigured yet clever Adah, she often seems to shine as the star of the story. Adah's palindromes at times seem reminiscent of those in the Rachel character in Roy's The God of Small Things, beginning with, "ELAPSED OR ESTEEMED, ALL ADE MEETS ERODES PALE" (58). (However, in this instance nicknaming Adah "Ade" seems contrived just to make this particular palindrome work.) Adah's ability to bring clever humor into situations continually shines through: "For news or mail or evidence of what Rachel calls The Pale Which We are Way Beyond, we wait for the rough-and-ready airplane pilot, Mr. Eeben Axelroot. He is reliable in the following way: if they say he is coming on Monday, it will be Thursday, Friday, or not at all" (33).

Even Adah's capitalization tendency is a bit reminiscent of Roy (in style, not ability, of course), beginning with Adah's clever sarcasm of referring to Nathan as "Our Father," showing not only his genetic role but also his attempt to be a commanding, infallible, controlling family member, attempting to become God himself. Adah's observations are always the cleverest: "Then there is batiza, Our Father's fixed passion. Batiza pronounced with the tongue curled just so means 'baptism.' Otherwise, it means 'to terrify.' Nelson spent part of an afternoon demonstrating to me that fine linguistic difference while we scraped chicken manure from the nest boxes. No one has yet explained it to the Reverend. He is not of a mind to receive certain news. Perhaps he should clean more chicken houses" (214). It is just this mistaking of words, the supposed ability to control the unknown by using what is familiar, that brings about the title of this book, because the word for "precious" is the same as the word for "poison."

Rachel, on the other hand, fares worse from Kingsolver's pen. Although Rachel is the oldest, from the beginning it's evident that Kingsolver does not mean for Rachel to be the brightest. Right away she misses the "...simple things in life I have took for granite" (23). Rachel is constantly exposing her vanity of her light-blonde hair, and by the end of the story one almost wonders if Kingsolver herself is exposing a prejudice about the relationship between intelligence and hair color. Perhaps that was premeditated as well. In any case, this limitation of Rachel is not endearing, seldom showing the unintentional wittiness of, "Maybe he's forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony" (405).

Kingsolver's wit is sometimes glaring and sometimes subtle, an example being, "The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster's crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes — for there were hookworms lying in wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet" (90).

The plot of the first half of the book is complementary to its style and is excellent indeed. It's the second half that fails. The climax of the book is when Ruth May dies: Orleanna cleverly refers to the "eyes in the trees" as a symbol of Ruth May (who had wanted to be a green snake blending into the forest) and the guilt which follows her the rest of her life (385). She takes the rest of her living family and flees, but Africa never let's her go.

But perhaps Kingsolver should have let the rest of the story go. There are few bright points throughout the second half, and its use is questionable. Even the final revealing of the fate of Nathan price isn't placed in any particular time or place in the plot and becomes a non-event. Bits of brilliance are hard to find: one of them is Leah's clever insight into the French subjunctive tense, which is indicates uncertainty and is often hard for English-speakers to grasp: "Our extended separation has so far improved my devotion to Anatole [the object of Leah's love], my French grammar, and my ability to live with uncertainty. Finally, I've confided to Thérèse, I understand the subjunctive tense" (418). The actual plot at this point is nowhere near as exciting as this discovery.

Kingsolver still continues to bring pictures of misconceptions and discoveries: "No wonder the neighbor women frowned in our doorway when we pulled out the linings of our pockets as evidence of our poverty. Not another soul in town even had pockets" (455). But there's not much enjoyment in the second "book," even though it's tied to the first by a common "binding" (pun intended). The subject of twins, though not central to the story, seems to extend beyond the story to the book itself: two similar yet different parts forced to be together.

Kingsolver notes that in the western Congo it is (or was) believed that twins are unlucky (210). When I was in the eastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently, I was told that in the that area twins are instead valued. Similarities and differences. How appropriate for a book of two parts, the first of which could be a book in itself and should definitely be read, the second of which, while adding some insights about the long-term effects of experiences and decisions, could not have lived on its own as the first one could. Like Leah and Adah, the first stole the life from the second. Unlike Adah, the second half of The Poisonwood Bible never really revived.