The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a finger drawn crooked through the heart of Africa, directing the lives of Nathan Price and his “five wives”- his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. It is a story of a family as well as a country: Congo, or Zaire as it was later called.
Nathan, the hot-headed, not-to-be-contradicted Baptist pastor is the self-declared savior of the Congo. His wife and daughters have but one recourse: shut-up and follow. Nathan’s brash arrogance is only somewhat explained-though no less excusable-by his personal experience with the Bataan Death March (1942). But his utter disregard for the common respect of the nationals to whom he seeks to minister is just one of his deeply unjustified flaws. He is the caricature of a man, a shadow made real only by the equally shallow words that he speaks when he opens his mouth. It is not enough to say he is a violent man. In addition to striking his wife and children for even the slightest failure, he delights in robbing his wife of all joy, as when he smashes the china plate that had become the singular mark of beauty and an icon of hope in the midst of lonely and unfamiliar lands:
“Orleanna, shut up!” he yelled, grabbing her arm hard and jerking the plate out of her hand. He raised it up over her head and slammed it down hard on the table, cracking it right in two. The smaller half flipped upside down as it broke, and lay there dribbling black plantain juice like blood onto the tablecloth. Mother stood helplessly, holding her hands out to the plate like she wished she could mend its hurt feelings… “You were getting too fond of that plate. Don’t you think I’ve noticed?… I had hoped you might know better than to waste your devotion on the things of this world, but apparently I was mistaken. I am ashamed of you”… He studied her. Father is not one to let you get away with simply apologizing. He asked her with a mean little smile, “Who were you showing off for here, -with your tablecloth and your fancy plate?” He said the words in a sour way, as if they were well-known sins.
If Nathan is the prophet, after whom he is named, each of the daughters is the shape of her biblical parallel: Rachel-the beautiful blond consumed with her beauty and appearance; Leah-the wise and truth-seeking/speaking daughter (scorned by her father despite her faithfulness to him); Adah-the outsider, the rejected; and Ruth May-she who will follow you anywhere. The girls cumulative embody the corporate disdain of their father, and so the capitalistic disdain of Africa that Portugal, Belgium, Europe generally, and eventually the United States brought. The vanity of Rachel is summed up in her varied and sordid marriages; the wisdom of Leah in her marriage to Anatole-the philosophic muse of his country; the strength of Adah in her graduate studies and (at least from Barbara Kingsolver’s perspective) her equal respect for all life: the spider, the Ocopy, the human, the virus.
And Ruth May. More the antithesis of the biblical Ruth-known for the special place of promise and hope she held for the aged Naomi-Ruth May dies: dies to the sound of rain and the sound of a serpent’s bite; to the sound of “Mother May I?”and to the ludicrous sound of her father’s voice as he runs pell-mell to place his hands on the heads of the native children, shouting, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
The second part of the book is the unfolding tide of Congolese history and politics, from the withdrawal of the Belgium, to the violent deposition and subsequent murder of duly-elected Patrice Lumumba; the corrupt government of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, and the unrolling years of violence, war, and death. Many of these are viewed from outside the borders of the country-as each of the Price family members look inward and backward. All departed that country, save Ruth May who was buried in the ground, and Nathan who was driven to utter madness in his declaration to save the souls-despite his lack of care for the lives-of the Congolese people.
But where Kingsolver so soundly conveys the one-dimensionality of Nathan Price the Prophet, she misses the greatest irony of all: that his Gospel is no Gospel. Listen to the emptiness, the driven pursuit of acceptance. Upon returning from the war, Nathan’s first words to Orleanna…
” were to speak of how fiercely he felt the eye of God upon him. He was profoundly embarrassed by my pregnancies. To his way of thinking they were unearned blessings, and furthermore each one drew God’s attention anew to my having a vagina and his having a penis and the fact that we’d laid them near enough together to conceive a child. But, God knows, it was never so casual as that. Nathan was made feverish by sex and trembled afterwards, praying aloud and blaming me for my wantonness. If his guilt made him a tyrant before men, it made him like a child before his God. Not a helpless or pleading child, but a petulant one, the type of tough boy who has known too little love and is quick to blame others for his mistakes, the type who grows up determined to show them all what he can do. He meant personally to save more souls than had perished on the road from Bataan, I think, and all other paths ever walked by the blight of mankind…”
Nathan is a tiring presence. He exhausts the natives, and wears out his family with thread-bare promises and invocations. His view of God is wanting; wanting and restless; restless and vain. While escaping the ravenous floods of ants, floating along in boats, Anatole describes the grating persistence that is Nathan Price, “Tata Lekulu is rowing his boat with leaves stuffed in his ears while your father lectures him on loving the Lord.” There is nothing incarnāre-taking on flesh-in this “ambassador.”
Where is there even a nod to the biblical realities of a God, who thrust himself in human form (incarnāre) into the jungle of our need and want-not to plant ignoble gardens and despise the native ways-but to redeem, reconcile, and stand as the sacrifice for all the dark and wild places of the world? He is absent.
And so, having begun to nobly, so faithfully, to convey the parallels between the angry Rev. Price and the decadent Anglos-abusers of Africa-Kingsolver ultimately falls into philosophic hyperbole and penchant idealism. As the book draws on, she flips through years and pages with the all-too-predictable outcome of each child, and leads readers to find comfort in some grand circle of life. The final pages of the book are in the voice of the dead Ruth-May become the Spirit of Africa. This mingling of voices pulls the reader away from the sweat-drenched, jungle-infested, ant-ravaged, mud-red concreteness of the early chapters-and thrusts us, instead, into images that are fleeting, fuzzy, fragmented from a thousand feet:
Orleanna..begins to work out once more-how many times must a mother do this-begins to work out how old I would be now. But this time, before your mind can calculate the answer, it will wander away down the street with the child… Mother, you can still hold on, but forgive! Forgive-and give for long as long as we both shall live. I forgive you, mother. I shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to their fathers… You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. Think of the vine that curls from the small square plot that was once my heart. That is the only marker you need. Move on. Walk forward into the light.
The dull pain of loss is soothed only by the overwhelming weight of the perpetual loss-not the comfort provided by Kingsolver. The death of a child is covered by the death of a million African lives. One can feel the pain dull, but the emptiness remains. The vine is no comfort, nor the ants, the Ocopy, or the spider.
The Rev. Price is to be judged and found guilty as an utter failure-not simply in his missionary pursuits but, more importantly, in the care, nurture, and fatherly-protection of his family. These are wholly absent. Orleanna and the girls are to be pitied, if not also judged for some of their own life choices. But the Gospel as told by Rev. Price-or Ms. Kingsolver, as the case may be-must not be found lacking on the grounds of the sepia intonations corruptly conveyed in the Poisonwood Bible. Where Nathan would guide the Congolese to a river of baptism and crocodile death, there is one who leads to a river of life. This other is a forgotten voice whispering into the wilderness of the African jungle. But his promise never fails:
“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Joel Hathaway lives in St. Louis, MO. He holds a BA in English Literature with minor emphases in Art and Creative Writing. He lives online at www.joelhathaway.com.